Peers Push For Journalism Safeguards In Counter-Terrorism Bill

Peers from across the political spectrum are seeking changes to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill to protect journalists and their sources.

The News Media Association has highlighted the threat to press freedom posed by new border stop and search powers proposed in the Bill which would allow officials to stop, question and demand material from journalists entering or leaving the country.

The only independent oversight of the use of these powers against journalists is restricted to “confidential material” and this only kicks in after officials would have had the opportunity to examine the material seized. 

The NMA is concerned that the powers resemble those that were used by officials at Heathrow Airport in 2013 to seize material from David Miranda related to the Edward Snowdon revelations. 

Those powers, contained in Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, were subsequently found by the Court of Appeal to be a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression and freedom of the press.  

 Amid mounting alarm at the implications of the Bill, peers are seeking to insert additional protections for journalists. Conservative peer Earl Attlee and Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb of the Green Party are backing an amendment that would allow journalists to refuse to answer questions or hand over any information about their work.

Labour’s Home Affairs Spokesperson in the House of Lords, Lord Rosser, has also tabled an amendment that would ensure it is not an offence to refuse to engage with officials exercising these powers.

Earl Attlee and Baroness Jones are seeking further changes to the Bill that would ensure that any journalistic material taken under these powers cannot be used in criminal proceedings and that all decisions relating any journalistic material are subject to the independent oversight of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner.

Labour have tabled an amendment that would prohibit officials from examining any material that a journalist maintains is confidential. It would then be up to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner to determine whether it is and whether it should be retained.

As there is no requirement under the Bill for officials to suspect a person of engaging in illegal activity before they detain them, Labour peers are also seeking to add to the Bill a requirement that decisions to screen people under these powers are “informed” and not arbitrary.

Peers will debate these amendments next week as the Bill continues its Committee Stage in the House of Lords. Peers have already criticised provisions in the Bill that would create new offences related to what can be said, published or viewed online regarding proscribed organisations.

A combination of Cross-Bench, Labour, Green and Conservative peers spoke in favour of exempting journalists from a proposed new criminal offence of traveling to an area that has been designated a terrorist threat to the UK.

The NMA has been emphasising the chilling effect that these new offences could have on the ability of journalists to report on terror and extremism.