Attacks on the Press 2001: United Kingdom

Press freedom is generally respected in the United Kingdom, and CPJ does not routinely monitor conditions in the country. However, CPJ was extremely alarmed by the September 28 murder of investigative reporter Martin O’Hagan, the first working journalist to be killed in Northern Ireland since the outbreak of violence more than three decades ago. O’Hagan was shot dead outside his home in the town of Lurgan on September 28.

O’Hagan worked in the Belfast office of the Dublin-based Sunday World, Ireland’s best-selling tabloid weekly. He regularly covered the paramilitary underworld, and had received death threats from both sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide.

A Protestant paramilitary group called the Red Hand Defenders claimed responsibility for O’Hagan’s murder in a telephone call to the BBC. Police consider the group a cover name for armed militants of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) and of the larger Ulster Defense Association (UDA). Colleagues believe the LVF targeted O’Hagan because he exposed their narcotics trafficking network and their involvement in extortion and murder. At press time, the police investigation was continuing, but no one had been charged.

Though physical attacks on journalists are rare in Northern Ireland, death threats are common.

On July 2, Barry George was convicted of the April 1999 murder of Jill Dando, a prominent television presenter on the BBC’s “Crimewatch” program. Dando was shot once in the head at point-blank range just outside her West London home. George, 41, who also lived in West London, was fascinated by the military, collected guns, and was said to be obsessed with celebrities.

Following the trial, however, several British newspapers questioned the conviction, pointing out that the murder weapon was never recovered, there were no witnesses to the crime, and no motive was ever established. On December 13, George was granted leave to appeal his sentence. Three appeals court judges were scheduled to hear the case in the summer of 2002.

Citing concerns that video footage from Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of masterminding the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, might contain coded messages to terrorists, the British government’s communications chief met with executives from the networks BBC1, ITN, and Sky News on October 15. The head of the BBC said later that “there had been talk of censorship and suggestions that the BBC would be squeezed by the government. That hasn’t happened, and it isn’t likely to.” The executives also affirmed their “right to exercise our own independent, impartial editorial judgement.”

September 28

Martin O’Hagan, Sunday World

O’Hagan, a 51-year-old investigative journalist with the Dublin newspaper Sunday World, was shot dead outside his home in the Northern Ireland town of Lurgan.

O’Hagan was shot several times from a passing car while walking home from a pub with his wife, who was not hurt in the attack. The vehicle used in the attack was found on fire not far from the crime scene. O’Hagan, who worked in the Belfast office of the Sunday World, was an Irish Catholic journalist who had become well known for his coverage of both Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups.

More than 20 years ago, before he became a journalist, O’Hagan was convicted of running guns for the Irish Republican Army and served five years in prison. But he later turned away from radical politics, studying sociology at the Open University and the University of Ulster and then entering journalism as a free-lancer for local newspapers. His connections in both Catholic Republican and Protestant Loyalist circles, as well as in the British security forces, gave him unusual insight into the conflict but also made him a target for paramilitary reprisals.

In 1989, he was kidnapped and interrogated by the Irish Republican Army, which tried unsuccessfully to force him to divulge his sources, and in the early 1990s he was forced to flee to Dublin after receiving death threats from a top loyalist gunman. O’Hagan returned to Belfast in 1995 after most paramilitary groups had declared cease-fires.

While O’Hagan had received threats from Protestant militants in the past, it is not clear if he had been threatened prior to the shooting. The Red Hand Defenders, which police consider a cover name for Protestant militants from the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) and the Ulster Defense Association, claimed responsibility for his murder.

Police initially identified the LVF as a primary suspect. Prior to his murder, O’Hagan had been working on several stories about the LVF, the BBC reported. Colleagues believe the LVF targeted O’Hagan for exposing the narcotics network they controlled, as well as assassinations and intimidation rackets they orchestrated.

The police investigation continues, and at press time no one had been charged for the killing.