openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Terrorist thugs have put a ‘target on my back’. Why won’t the police act?

Like many journalists in Northern Ireland, my life has been threatened – and impunity is to blame. Action is long overdue

Patricia Devlin
4 June 2021, 12.00am
I am among a number of Northern Irish journalists to have been told by police that my life is in danger
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Radharc Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The past two years have been the toughest of my career as a crime journalist in Northern Ireland. I've been abused, harassed, and targeted by Loyalist paramilitaries who have not only threatened to shoot me dead, but to rape one of my children. When my name was spray-painted on walls alongside gun crosshairs, I sat back and asked myself, how did it get to this? How have terrorist thugs, supposedly under the watch of police, been able to succeed with such ease in putting a target on my back?

The answer is disturbingly simple; they've been allowed to.

Impunity sends a clear message to journalists: threats against you are not a priority to us and a separate message to those threatening them: you can continue because we will not hold you to account. Impunity is a word that is synonymous with Northern Ireland's troubled past. A legacy of unsolved killings mixed with protected state agents means that many of those who lost loved ones during the darkest days of the conflict will never get the truth and justice they deserve. Twenty-three years on from the Good Friday Agreement, divided communities ruled by Republican and Loyalist crime gangs still exist. Those paramilitaries have claimed the lives of two journalists since that very same peace deal was signed.

On 28 September 2001, Sunday World reporter Martin O'Hagan was gunned down close to his home in Co Armagh by the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). On 18 April 2019, journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead by the New IRA as she observed a riot in Derry. Although killed almost two decades apart by different groups, there is one similarity in both murders – impunity has prevented their killers being brought to justice.

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One woman said after viewing pictures of my children that she hoped I would have to ‘bury them’

Since Lyra's murder two years ago, the intimidation of journalists in Northern Ireland has reached alarming levels. I am among a number of journalists to have been informed by police that my life is in danger. Like many of my threatened colleagues, I have yet to see anyone held to account for these sinister attempts to stop me from doing my job. It was early 2019 when I was first targeted in a smear campaign. I was reporting on the murder of Ian Ogle, a father-of-two, who was butchered yards from his east Belfast home by members of the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). In the months prior to his killing, Ian and his family had been subjected to an intimidation campaign that forced him from his job and included an order to surrender himself for ‘punishment’. His crime was defending his children, who had been attacked in a bar. His refusal to bow down led to his murder.

Each and every time I wrote a story about the UVF’s criminal activities, I was subjected to relentless online abuse, smears and hate. My personal details, including a link to my private Facebook page, were published on social media, with others invited to join in on the trolling. One woman said after viewing pictures of my children that she hoped I would have to “bury them”. Another account told me I had a target on my back, which had been there “for a while”. Even at the height of the relentless abuse, which played out whilst I was heavily pregnant, I did not go to the police because I believed it was something that came with the territory as a crime reporter. This changed a few months later when I received a message to my personal Facebook account in which the sender threatened to rape my newborn son. It was signed off in the name of neo-Nazi terrorist group Combat-18. I went to the police, where I filed a formal statement and provided officers with the details of the social media account that sent the message.

Police later confirmed the individual behind the message was a violent criminal who previously had close links with a Loyalist paramilitary gang. To date, this individual has not even been questioned, let alone arrested. Since then, the threats against me for my work have increased. In April 2020, police informed me they had received intelligence of a plan to attack me in my car if I entered a Loyalist area in Belfast where I had been covering paramilitary coercion and control.

The next month, myself and colleagues at two Sunday newspapers were informed by police that the South East Antrim Ulster Defence Association (UDA) planned to carry out an attack on us. The blanket threat led to condemnation from politicians across the political divide. A day later, those same politicians were informed their lives were also under threat from the same gang. In November, the threats escalated, with police visiting me at my home twice within 12 hours. They informed me of two separate threats emanating from the UDA, which stated that I would be entrapped and shot dead. In February, my name was sprayed on a number of walls beside an image of a gun crosshair, yet another threat to shoot me dead.

Politicians and police vowed to do what was needed to hold the people behind those threats to account. But today, as I sit here and wonder what is coming next, no one has. And I have little faith anyone ever will be. When police fail to arrest a dangerous criminal who threatens a newborn baby, with enough evidence to do so, what hope is there of the shadowy figures behind the death threats ever being brought to justice?

Cautionary tales in Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe are too numerous to be ignored

Change is overdue. In 2018, Montenegrin journalist Olivera Lakić was shot in the leg in front of her apartment building. In March 2012 a tracksuit-clad man assaulted her, again in front of her apartment. While the perpetrator in that 2012 attack was convicted, and nine people were arrested following the 2018 shooting, no convictions have been secured. Nearly three years on the crime remains unsolved. This has not gone unnoticed. At the end of the 2020, the special state prosecutor in Montenegro announced that two suspects have been arrested for planning Lakić’s assassination. They are alleged to be members of the same criminal organisation behind the 2018 shooting.

If justice for journalists is not prioritised, their perceived vulnerability is not forgotten by those seeking to attack them. The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta did not come out of nowhere. Due to her reporting, she had endured years of legal threats, repeated online intimidation and smear campaigns, an arson attack on her home while her family slept inside, and the killing of a family pet. Her murder needs to be understood within this context, as the culmination of a campaign against her, fueled by failures of the state to offer adequate protections and hold those behind the attacks to account.

Impunity pollutes and weakens democracies. Cautionary tales in Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe are too numerous to be ignored. Action is long overdue to ensure all journalists are protected.

Democracy without media freedom is no real democracy at all.


This piece was written in collaboration with Media Freedom Rapid Response.

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