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Court allows journalist to defy order for notes

A Northern Ireland journalist won a significant legal battle yesterday against police attempts to obtain details of her confidential dealings with the Real IRA.

A judge ruled that the life of Suzanne Breen would be placed at risk if she was compelled to hand over material relating to the Real IRA killings of two soldiers near Belfast in March.

Journalists and human rights groups welcomed the judge's decision as significant to media freedom. Breen, the Belfast correspondent for the Dublin Sunday Tribune, had faced a prison sentence of up to five years if, as she vowed, she defied a court order to hand over information.

Police wanted to examine her computer, telephones, notes and all other material relating to stories that she wrote about the Real IRA in the wake of the murders of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar outside the Massereene army barracks in Antrim.

She said yesterday: "Today is a great victory for me and for the Tribune, but it's also a victory for journalists across Ireland and Britain and elsewhere around the world."

She had told an earlier hearing that the dissident republicans would regard any co-operation by her with the authorities as an "act of collaboration" with the security forces.

A campaign in support of her case attracted support from prominent journalists, academics and others and hundreds signed a petition organised by the National Union of Journalists.

In his judgment, the Recorder of Belfast, Judge Burgess, said there was a strong public interest in bringing the killers to justice, but he had to consider seriously the existence of a real risk to Breen's life.

He described the Real IRA as a "ruthless and murderous group of people" who, if Breen handed over material, would treat her as "as a legitimate target with the murderous consequences that could and may well follow".

The judge said that while the material that Breen held was likely to be of substantial value to the police investigation, he had to place considerable weight on the protection of life.

He said it would "be close to inconceivable as to how she, and potentially her family, could be protected."