Committee Warns Of ‘Chilling Effect’ On Journalism From Counter Terrorism Regime

Measures in the proposed new counter terrorism regime risk a “chilling effect” on journalistic and academic freedoms unless robust safeguards are introduced, an influential parliamentary committee has warned.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights’ evidence to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill Committee highlights the various threats to journalism in the Bill such as the new powers to stop and question people during border crossings without any access to a lawyer which were also criticised by the News Media Association.

In its submission to the Committee, the NMA warned that new powers to stop and question people during border crossings would seriously endanger journalistic sources unless robust safeguards for journalism were introduced. 

The NMA said: “There is no right to contact a lawyer or obtain legal advice, there is no exception to allow for refusal to protect the identity of a source, and it is an offence to refuse to answer or otherwise obstructs any such questioning or requests for document production.  This does not allow journalists to protect the identity of their sources.” 

The NMA also pointed out that legitimate reporting on terrorism would be jeopardised if the proposal to make viewing terrorism videos three or more times on the internet was criminalised, as proposed in the Bill.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights said: “This clause may capture academic and journalistic research as well as those with inquisitive or even foolish minds. The viewing of material without any associated intentional or reckless harm is, in our view, an unjustified interference with the right to receive information protected by Article 10.

“We think that, unless amended, this implementation of this clause would clearly risk breaching Article 10 of the ECHR and unjustly criminalising the conduct of those with no links to terrorism.”

The Committee also warned that new powers to stop and question people during border crossings, which were heavily criticised by the Court of Appeal in the case of journalist David Miranda,  would seriously endanger journalistic sources.  

The Committee said: “There is no requirement for reasonable suspicion in order to exercise these powers. This includes powers to retain and copy journalistic and legally privileged information. It also includes powers that delay access to a lawyer or prevent confidential access to a legal advice.

“However, we are concerned that some of the extensions of existing offences could take the criminal law in a dangerous direction for human rights, risking a ‘chilling effect’, not only on journalistic and academic freedoms, but also the inquisitive and the foolish mind.”

The Committee also criticises the proposal to criminalise the publication online of an image depicting an item of clothing or another article, in such a way as to arouse reasonable suspicion that the person is a member or supporter of a proscribed organization.

The Committee said: “In our view, to criminalise the publication of an article which may be worn or displayed in a private place risks catching a vast amount of activity and risks being disproportionate, particularly given the lack of incitement to criminality in the mens rea of this offence. It risks a huge swathe of publications being caught, including historical images and journalistic articles, which should clearly not be the object of this clause.”

The Committee also critised measures which could restrict the ability of news organisations to report on terrorist groups which Reporters Without Borders  said would have “a clear and disproportionate chilling effect on press freedom to engage in such debate.”