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Fresh death threat to journalist on sixth anniversary of Martin O'Hagan's murder

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders joins journalists in Northern Ireland in condemning a fresh paramilitary death threat made against a leading Belfast journalist - exactly six years after the unsolved murder of the investigative reporter, Martin O'Hagan.

The threat, accompanied by a bullet, bearing the name, address and car registration number of Robin Livingstone, the editor of the "Andersonstown News", was sent to a TV studio by a group claiming to be the Red Hand Defenders, thought to be a loyalist paramilitary group.

Reporters Without Borders said: "This latest sinister development shows that paramilitaries still feel at liberty to seek to intimidate journalists - a threat worsened by the police failure to catch the killers of Martin O'Hagan."

The "Sunday World" reporter was shot dead, apparently by a loyalist paramilitary gang, in Lurgan, County Armagh, on 28 September 2001.

The Paris-based worldwide press freedom organisation called on the Police Service of Northern Ireland to step up efforts to protect journalists, and to arrest and prosecute those responsible. It criticised the police failure so far to bring O'Hagan's killers to justice, but welcomed new inquiries in the case and the emergence of new evidence focusing on the reporter's writing on alleged collusion between the security forces and paramilitaries.

Reporters Without Borders's UK correspondent, Glyn Roberts, reports:

Journalists are pressing Northern Ireland police for a progress report from a fresh inquiry looking at new evidence into the murder of the investigative reporter Martin O'Hagan - six years after he was shot dead.

. . .

New evidence in the O'Hagan case has been forwarded to a police team that recently began reviewing the case. The original murder investigation was criticised for failing to prosecute anyone amid allegations of a cover-up of collusion between security forces and loyalist paramilitaries.

To mark this week's sixth anniversary of the murder, officials of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) - of which O'Hagan was Belfast branch secretary - have asked to meet senior police officers to discuss developments.

Two new inquiries have been launched into the case: an internal review by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and a separate investigation by the region's Police Ombudsman, who is empowered to examine allegations of police misconduct. Both are expected to be completed within months.

O'Hagan, 51, who worked for the "Sunday World" newspaper, was gunned down as he walked home from a pub in Lurgan, County Armagh, with his wife on the evening of 28 September 2001. Journalists say the failure to catch the killers casts a shadow over press freedom in the region.

A coroner's inquest was finally held in December 2006. It ruled that O'Hagan had been shot because of his investigative reporting into the drug dealings of a paramilitary gang, the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). Police told the inquest they thought that eight men interviewed over the killing were responsible, but that officers lacked the evidence to prosecute.

However, some local people were disappointed with the hastily arranged inquest, says Jane Winter, director of British Irish Rights Watch, which has been monitoring the case for the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. She says her non-government organisation has now forwarded a dossier of new evidence to the Ombudsman's and PSNI inquiries. This contains information from people who would like to have testified at the inquest.

"They came forward to us with their evidence," she said. "They have contacted the authorities before with their evidence, but this has never been followed up and was not put to the inquest."

Some of the evidence related to the things O'Hagan was investigating when he was shot - alleged collusion between paramilitaries and the security forces.

"He was also writing a book," said Winter, adding that the inquest had been criticised for being "a very quick job and too ready to accept the police line that he was killed because he was investigating drug activities".

Winter says the PSNI Retrospective Murder Review Unit (RMRU), headed by Superintendent Alan Skelton, has expressed an interest in the new evidence, saying it refers to "lines of inquiry they were not aware of."

There have also been recent reports of a loyalist paramilitary "supergrass" offering to supply police with key evidence about the killers in return for immunity from prosecution over other crimes.

The PSNI will not comment, other than to say that the RMRU is reviewing the murder investigation and will report to police chiefs "in due course", adding: "Mr O'Hagan's family have been apprised of the situation." No public statement on the outcome is likely unless prosecutions follow.

The Ombudsman's office says its own investigation is "well-advanced", and has a few more matters to examine before reporting on the outcome.

There have been claims that the original murder investigation failed because police were seeking to protect agents or informers within the LVF. The police vehemently deny this.

Séamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the NUJ, has now written to Mr Skelton at the police review team. He requests a meeting "so that we may receive an update on the investigation, having due regard to the necessity for confidentiality in what we recognise to be an extremely sensitive case".

In his letter, he writes: "The fact that no one has been convicted either with the murder or in connection with events surrounding the night of the murder is of grave concern." Mr Dooley points out that the NUJ has urged members working in Northern Ireland "who may be in a position to offer assistance [to the RMRU] to do so and note that some interviews have already taken place".

Meanwhile, a day before the sixth anniversary of O'Hagan's killing, a bullet - bearing the name, address and car registration number of a leading Belfast journalist, Robin Livingstone, the editor of the "Andersonstown News" - was sent to a TV studio by a group claiming to be the Red Hand Defenders, apparently a loyalist paramilitary group.

At the same time, similar threats were also issued against several republican politicians. "Andersonstown News", in predominantly Roman Catholic west Belfast, has been targeted by threats before over its reports that have angered hard-line loyalists, and up to 10 other journalists in Northern Ireland are currently working under separate threats of violence.

The NUJ condemned the latest "outrageous" action. Jeremy Dear, the union's general secretary, said: "We condemn utterly such threats. It is vital the PSNI acts to protect those under threat and that politicians from all parties deliver a clear message in defence of media freedom and the right of journalists to work free from such threats."

Winter, from British Irish Rights Watch, said the threat was aimed at stifling press freedom, adding: "With the 2001 murder of journalist Martin O'Hagan still unsolved, threats against journalists and others must be taken seriously."

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