Lords Highlight Journalism Concerns In Counter Terror Regime

Members of the House of Lords have joined the News Media Association in highlighting the threat to journalism and freedom of speech posed by proposed new powers in the counter terrorism regime.  

In a debate on the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill on Tuesday, Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour peers all spoke of the threat to legitimate reporting on terrorism issues in the public interest posed by the new regime.  

The NMA had briefed Lords on the issues ahead of the debate highlighting key areas for concern such as the sweeping new stop and search powers for border security officials and the creation of a new offence of obtaining or viewing information which could be useful for preparing an act of terrorism.

During the debate the Minister, Baroness Williams of Trafford, said that a new offence of travelling to a designated area would be subject to a reasonable excuse defence. “This defence will operate in the same way as the existing reasonable excuse defences in the Terrorism Act 2000. Accordingly, once a defendant has raised the defence, the onus will be on the prosecution to disprove the defence to the criminal standard,” she said. 

Lord Rosser, Labour’s home affairs spokesperson, said the issue of criminalising viewing of terrorist material on the internet needed further consideration.  He added: “We will need to probe the position of those who might look at such material for legitimate and non-terrorist or terrorist-related intent, such as journalists or academics, or those who look at it inadvertently. The issue of proportionality has to be considered.”

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, the Lib Dem justice spokesperson, said: “Clause 3, relating to use of the internet, is targeted at the legitimate objective of preventing the internet being used for terrorist purposes. But again, it is insufficiently limited. In spite of the reasonable ​excuse defence, there is a risk that the clause will operate to restrict innocent and harmless research and journalism.”

Lord Marks went on to say that a clause criminalising the publication of images of clothing or articles arousing reasonable suspicion of membership of a proscribed organisation was “insufficiently restricted and disproportionate.”

“It could catch honest and fair reporting, cultural work and international and political study, and stifle genuine discussion,” he added.

Baroness Warsi, Conservative, added: “Apart from the obvious point, as stated by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, that what this offence seeks to cover is already covered by existing legislation, it risks criminalising a broad range of legitimate behaviour by academics, journalists and human rights activists—a concern voiced by the UN special rapporteur on human rights.

“A person risks imprisonment not for being a member or supporter, but for merely publishing an image that could be construed as arousing reasonable suspicion. This is in a space where images can have a historical context and meaning far broader than a relatively modern and often cynical adoption by a terrorist group; the Irish flag is one such example.”