Over the past two years, crime and paramilitary and sectarian attacks have risen in Northern Ireland, fueled by economic stagnation, a power vacuum in the regional government, and the fallout from Brexit, according to news reports.
In this climate, journalists are also increasingly at risk: freelance reporter Lyra McKee was killed in April 2019, and there have been growing reports of crime gangs and paramilitary groups threatening journalists, according to a joint statement issued on May 19, 2020, by the publishers of three Belfast-based newspapers and the National Union of Journalists.
In May 2020, in an unprecedented move, the Northern Ireland police warned several journalists working for the Sunday Life and Sunday World newspapers that a loyalist, or pro-British, paramilitary group was planning “imminent” attacks against them.
Patricia Devlin, an award-winning crime reporter working for the Sunday World, was one of them.
Devlin has covered crime, drug and criminal gangs, and how their activities are intertwined with certain loyalist paramilitary groups that as she says, “through intimidation and extortion often terrorize and keep some communities in their grip.” She spoke with CPJ via phone in early July 2020. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What kind of threats have you faced lately due to your reporting?
I have been experiencing a rising level of abuse and threats on social media from the beginning of 2019, mostly from anonymous social media trolls. This has carried on throughout 2020 and I believe it is being orchestrated by members of a loyalist criminal gang.
The abuse has ranged from remarks about my reporting, for example, accusations that I am biased; to misogynistic attacks where I have been called everything from a ‘tramp’ to a ‘prostitute.’ I have also been subjected to sectarian abuse, where I have been accused of only writing about loyalist paramilitary groups because of my religion. I am non-religious.
What were the most dangerous of these?
Throughout what was the worst period of this hate campaign, I was heavily pregnant with my third child. The threats first took a sinister turn in April 2019 when an anonymous profile on Twitter posted publicly that I had “target on my back.”
This post followed another full day of orchestrated trolling by members of a mob which I had been writing about regularly. The gang – which uses the name of a loyalist paramilitary group – had been the subject of articles about murder, drug dealing, intimidation, and extortion.
On this particular day the abuse was so severe that day I was forced to come off social media.
When I returned, I discovered that my personal details including links to my private Facebook account, my email address and other social media profiles had been posted to a number of online forums. Along with these details, everyone and anyone was encouraged to troll me.
From that point on, I kept receiving threatening and abusive messages from not only fake accounts but also criminals who I had written about in the past. One violent individual, who has amassed over 200 convictions, sent me a sinister message.
In June 2019, I gave birth to my little boy and I remember how glad I was to get a small break from the constant stream of abuse on social media. Due to being self-employed, I was only able to take a small amount of time off and in September 2019 I returned to writing. The following month, October, I received a direct message to my personal Facebook account in which the sender threatened to rape my newborn son. Another vulnerable family member [was] named in the message along with a location of where the sender believed her home was. It was signed off with the name of a neo-Nazi terror group, which in the past has had links to some loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.
How do authorities in Northern Ireland deal with these threats?
I don’t think that police take these threats seriously enough. Last year, we lost Lyra McKee; although [she] wasn’t receiving threats from criminals prior to her murder, [she] was on the frontline as a journalist. And from then threats against journalists have massively escalated.
In my case, I reported the threat to the police. I even have a fairly good idea who the sender could be and I passed police their details. No one has been arrested, no one has been questioned.
The suspect is a dangerous criminal who is suspected of being involved in punishment attacks in Northern Ireland. I voiced the concern [about] my safety to police. I feel vulnerable and I feel threatened. The authorities need to make an example of these people by prosecuting them, because if they don’t, I fear something serious will happen. On social media a pact mentality can easily develop and in Northern Ireland there is no shortage of vigilantism. Police need to do more to help protect anyone who is threatened, especially journalists who are there to bring information to the public.
According to recent reports, police have warned certain journalists of imminent threats but did not disclose their names. Were you among them? How did it happen?
Yes, I am among those journalists. Police have visited me twice in recent months.
First in April when I was warned that loyalists planned to attack me in my car whilst visiting a loyalist area where I had been reporting on drug crimes. I have been advised by police to not enter the area. Then in May when the blanket threat was issued against some journalists working for the Sunday Life and the Sunday World newspapers, I remember I felt physically sick, my stomach churned. The only reason I am a journalist is because I want to expose crime and criminal behavior and their impact on our communities. These threats prevent me from doing my reporting properly.
According to media reports, some accuse the police of ‘putting journalists at risk’ by refusing to share specific details of ‘immediate threats.’ What do you think?
I agree with this criticism. When police came to my door to notify me, the policeman read a note about some individuals who planned to attack me. When I asked him for that particular piece of paper, he refused to give it to me saying that it is based on intelligence which he is not entitled to share with me. But you are a journalist, he told me, you might have an idea who those individuals can be. Of course, I have criminal sources so I can have a fair idea about these threats, but I still believe that police need to give us more information, they should not be holding back any information and help us more to protect ourselves.
What kind of precautionary measures did you take?
In Northern Ireland you are security conscious as default, but I had to take extra measures to protect my physical and online safety. I have a security system around my house. Because of the specific threats, I think twice when and where I go out and I cannot go by myself to areas where I usually reported from, which makes me extremely sad. When I do go out on jobs, I do not drive my own car and I am extremely careful where I drive to and also about whom I meet, especially when it comes to meeting someone I do not know.
How do you personally and your family cope with these threats?
I am trying to protect my family from all this and keep doing what I am doing normally. I do not tell my children that I am being threatened. For the first time in 13 years since I became a journalist, this year, I needed to take a break for a few weeks because everything became just too overwhelming. When I received the threat to my newborn son, I briefly considered leaving journalism. The abuse and threats bring a lot of anxiety, especially when it comes to social media where you just can’t escape it. People sometimes say, just come off social media, but I do not think anyone – especially a journalist – should be expected to do that. It also does not stop the threats.
I became a journalist because I wanted to make the world a better place.
To expose crime and those who are terrorizing communities so that all of us, including our children, can lead a peaceful life. It makes me sad to see that threats and abuse against journalists is becoming normalized in Northern Ireland, which seems to have taken a huge step back in time. I often feel that we are back to square one.
[CPJ emailed the press office of the Police Service of Northern Ireland for comment on the following claims in the interview above: that the police did not take threats against journalists seriously enough; and that they did not share sufficient information with journalists who are at risk or who have been threatened.]