MPs Back NMA’s Press Freedom Amendments To Counter Terrorism And Border Security Bill

MPs from across the political spectrum have backed greater protections for journalists being added to the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill.

Following intensive News Media Association lobbying the Bill, which is poised to become law, now exempts journalists from a new criminal offence of travelling to an area designated a terrorist threat to the UK and protects them from being prosecuted for viewing and researching material online related to terrorism.

The original version of the Bill provided no specific protection for journalists from being prosecuted for these activities. Instead, they would have had to rely on a vague defence of “reasonable excuse”.

Foreign correspondents travelling to war zones would have faced considerable legal uncertainty, as would journalists researching terrorist organisations and their tactics. The Bill, which would have criminalised even one-off, passive viewing of such material, could potentially have caught exposes by the UK newspapers of the accessibility of terrorist manuals online and the role of programmatic advertising in funding jihadist websites.

In addition to new terrorism offences, the Bill also contains powers for border officials to stop, search and seize information from people coming in and out of the country that can be exercised without reasonable suspicion.

These powers are to be exercised largely without independent oversight, although decisions to seize and retain confidential journalistic material would have to be referred to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner.

The NMA initially identified the threats to press freedom and, throughout each stage of the Bill’s passage through Parliament, lobbied for robust and specific journalistic safeguards. The NMA made representations to ministers who responded with improvements to the clause criminalising viewing terror-related material online.  

The NMA also worked with MPs and peers, in particular from the Conservative, Labour and Green Party to table amendments to protect journalists from these draconian new offences and powers. All these efforts helped secure the following changes:

  • Exemption for journalists from the offence of travelling to a designated area; 
  • A defence for journalists from the new offence of viewing material online;
  • The right for those stopped under the border powers to be informed of their rights and to consult a lawyer in private; 
  • The right for journalists to be consulted over any decision to copy confidential material seized from them under the border powers;
  • A commitment from ministers to consider what new protections can be put in place for journalistic material via the Code of Practice that will govern how border officials use these powers;
  • A public consultation on that Code of Practice.

Having secured these changes to the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill, the NMA is now seeking amendments to the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill, which will gives both domestic and foreign authorities unprecedented powers to access the content of peoples’ emails, social media messages and other electronic communications.

The Bill’s report stage in the House of Commons will take place on Wednesday next week.