THE National Union of Journalists is to write to Police Scotland over the force’s refusal to deny it illegally used surveillance powers to flush out reporters’ confidential sources.

Paul Holleran, the NUJ's top official in Scotland, will demand answers after two of his members came forward with fears that they may have been spied on.

The force maintained its wall of silence last night by dodging questions about whether the alleged snooping related to a newspaper's report into a murder case in Scotland.

It emerged last year that police forces throughout the UK had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to access journalists’ phone records and other digital data.

RIPA allows officers to uncover the ‘who and when’ of text messages, emails and phone calls, rather than the contents of the communications.

The revelation caused an outcry and triggered a probe by the Interception of Communications Commissioner's Office (IOCCO), which found that RIPA had been used to examine the relationship between 105 journalists and 242 sources.

The last coalition Government changed the law to require police forces to get judicial approval before using RIPA to access a journalist’s communications data.

However, the Commissioner announced recently that two unnamed forces had flouted the law since March 25 by not getting a judge’s approval.

Police Scotland refused to deny it was one of the two forces behind the “serious contraventions”.

Holleran, a long-standing trade union negotiator, told the Sunday Herald: “I was told last year by someone in the force that journalists had not been targeted this way. I took this with a pinch of salt.”

He said the concerns of two NUJ members, as well as the IOCCO revelations, will result in the union writing to the force.

“We are seeking clarification from Police Scotland on their position and the ways they believe they can use these powers.”

He added: “Using these powers against journalists is invidious to say the least. Protection of sources is an essential part of a journalist’s job – and surveillance puts journalists and whistleblowers at risk. It is an attack on journalism and also flies in the face of democracy.”

On Friday, this newspaper asked Police Scotland whether the breach identified by IOCCO related to an article published in the last four months by a newspaper regarding a high-profile murder.

A spokesperson said: “IOCCO has clearly set out rationale for not identifying organisations in its report and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

In one of the two cases flagged up by IOCCO, police had acquired confidential information relating to a suspected journalistic source working within the police and a former force employee believed to be acting as an intermediary.

Pol Clementsmith, who is the Scotland Officer for The Open Rights Group (ORG), said: "If journalists and citizens alike believe that their privacy is being breached in this manner then it undoubtedly impacts on what people are prepared to write about as well as the safety and integrity of their sources and this can have a chilling effect on the very foundation of the democratic process.

"Revelations that the police have, on occasion, potentially breached these fundamental rights in a manner neither "necessary or proportionate" do nothing to assist public confidence that the police are acting lawfully.

"When it comes to any kind of snooping on the part of our security services and law enforcement agencies ORG Scotland would like to see proper oversight, including independent judicial intervention.”

Drew Campbell, the President of Scottish PEN, which champions writers and free speech, said: "Surveillance of journalists has an especially chilling effect on the freedoms we rely on our fourth estate to protect. If journalists cannot guarantee confidentiality to their sources then their fulfilling that role of holding power to account is seriously undermined, feeding a culture of fear and self-censorship deeply unhealthy for everyone.

“These acknowledged “serious contraventions” of the guidelines that govern such surveillance is simply unacceptable, more so when many consider the regulations in need of strengthening as it is.

“Police Scotland must respond fully and openly to the NUJ’s request. We will support the NUJ efforts to ensure they do.”