CPJ alarmed by Cameron’s threat against UK press

New York, October 29, 2013–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by threats against the press made by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in parliament on Monday.

Cameron said, “It would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act” against the press if newspapers “don’t demonstrate some social responsibility” and stop reporting on National Security Agency files leaked by U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden. Cameron singled out the Guardian, saying that the paper had “gone on and printed further material which is damaging” after having already been accused of harming national security.

Cameron’s previous accusations on October 16 did not cite any evidence that the decision by the Guardian or other publications to publish the NSA files had been detrimental to U.K.’s security. At the time, he urged members of parliament to investigate whether the Guardian had broken the law.

“If David Cameron has evidence that the Guardian or other publications have damaged U.K. national security, he should share this evidence instead of issuing vague threats about taking action,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Governments around the world look to the U.K. as a model for media policies, but in this case, Cameron seems to be taking a page from the book of less enlightened governments that invoke ‘social responsibility’ to ward off valid criticism.”

Cameron mentioned the possibility of resorting to prior restraint, through high court injunctions and Defence Advisory notices–government-issued but not legally enforceable warnings not to publish materials sensitive to national security–or through “other tougher measures,” the Guardian reported.

Cameron said he would rather not resort to such measures. “I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility.” His remarks followed a mention in parliament by Conservative MP Julian Smith of a report in the Sun, which quoted an anonymous intelligence source saying that terrorists had “gone quiet” after the details of the NSA surveillance programs were published, press reports said.

A spokeswoman for Cameron told CPJ, “The prime minister’s words were quite clear that he would hope newspapers would be responsible with national security-related stories. National security has to be a primary concern, and there are ways of having a debate on intelligence without hampering national security.”

Cameron’s statements come after the U.K. detention, harassment, and confiscation of files and electronic equipment from David Miranda, partner and assistant to Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, at Heathrow airport in August. London Metropolitan Police held Miranda under Britain’s anti-terror law, and aggressively questioned him about the Guardian‘s work on the Snowden files.

Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian wrote on August 19 that the paper had been subjected to official harassment over the summer and pressured to either destroy or surrender the Snowden-leaked materials in its possession. In July, two security agents watched as journalists destroyed newsroom hard drives–despite Rusbridger pointing out that the information existed outside the country.