A Progressive Unionist Party member failed on Thursday in a legal bid to have a newspaper gagged from claiming he is involved with loyalist paramilitaries.
Colin Fulton was seeking an injunction to stop the Sunday World from continuing to report his alleged links to the UVF.
The south Belfast man’s lawyers argued that a relentless series of articles about him have put his life at increased risk from dissident republicans.
But a High Court judge refused to impose a ban after finding that Mr Fulton had created his own risk by continued public association with notorious UVF members.
In an emphatic endorsement of press freedom, Mr Justice Gillen said it is in the public interest that investigative journalism should not be impeded from revealing criminal activity allegedly unfolding in a community “bedevilled” by paramilitaries.
“Serious allegations have been made about this man including thefts from occupied houses, punishment attacks on teenagers of a particularly pernicious nature, an attack on three girls, and participation in illegal drinking clubs in which drugs are sold, in addition to serious involvement in the UVF,” he said. “These allegations seethe with the brutality of paramilitary involvement.”
Mr Fulton, who denies any role in the UVF, sought the interim injunction as part of a wider harassment claim against the Sunday World.
He has received six separate warnings from police that he is under threat – four of them coming after the Sunday World began claiming he has a paramilitary role.
Counsel for Mr Fulton argued there is a direct link because reference to the articles was made on dissident republican websites.
The court has an obligation to protect the plaintiff’s life under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it was contended.
Lawyers for the newspaper defended the injunction application by insisting Mr Fulton has courted controversy and put himself at risk by attending protests where UVF members were involved. The court also heard that he flew a UVF flag outside his home in the Village area of the city.
Mr Fulton claimed this was a cultural expression to mark the centenary of the Ulster Covenant.
Ruling on the case, Mr Justice Gillen described the PUP man as having “some difficulties with the boundaries between fact and fiction” in denying he had ever been arrested and initially failing to disclose the first threat emerged before he was identified in the newspaper articles.
The judge accepted there is a real and immediate risk to Mr Fulton’s life, but rejected the claim that it was linked to the Sunday World reports.
The first threat emerged three months before the newspaper identified him, he pointed out.
According to Mr Justice Gillen those who allow themselves to be photographed with known paramilitaries, even after police disclose a threat to their lives, lay themselves open to discussion in opposing paramilitary blogs and websites.
The PUP man’s decision not to sue for libel, explained by a lack of financial resources, was also “not without significance”, the judge noted.
Jim McDowell, the newspaper’s northern editor, described the ruling as a good day for responsible, investigative journalism.