As police seize Newsnight laptop, concerns grow at reach of UK counter-terrorism measures

For journalists investigating jihadist networks, the UK is proving to be no safe haven. British police used special powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 in August to seize the laptop of Secunder Kermani, a reporter for BBC Two’s flagship news show “Newsnight,” according to reports. “They required the BBC to hand over communication between the BBC journalist and a man in Syria who publicly identified himself as an [Islamic State] member,” BBC spokeswoman said today.

Kermani is known in the UK for his coverage of militant groups and, as British daily The Independent noted, “He has built a reputation for making contact with Western-born [Islamic State] fighters and interviewing them online about their motivations.” The reporter has received some criticism for his coverage however, including by the UK’s former security minister Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who said last year that publicity gives terrorists “a status and importance they should not be accorded.”

The move by police has sent a chill through the British media. Ian Katz, editor of “Newsnight,” told news outlets, “We are concerned that the use of the Terrorism Act to obtain communication between journalists and sources will make it very difficult for reporters to cover this issue of critical public interest.”

A spokesman for the Southeast Counter Terrorism Unit, a London-based branch of a UK police network, said that orders under the Terrorism Act are used “proportionately and on a case-by-case basis.” The spokesman added that officers have to first prove in Crown Court there is sufficient grounds to apply for a court order, according to reports. “The respondent in any such process can contest the order which can then be heard at a higher court. In this particular case, the BBC attended the hearing in August and did not contest the application or decision of the court,” he said, adding that the laptop has since been returned.

For freedom of expression and journalists’ organizations, the incident appears to confirm the British government’s determination to go after the media and their sources when it considers security interests are at stake. “Yet again we have a situation where the police are riding roughshod over press freedom and using anti-terror legislation to get their hands on journalistic information,” Michelle Stanistreet, general-secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said in a statement. “There are serious questions to be answered about why the order obtained by the police warranted the seizing of a journalist’s laptop–which may well have contained confidential information on other sources and other stories too. Using journalists as tools of the police in this way has a chilling effect on press freedom and hampers the ability of journalists to protect their sources and do their jobs properly and with integrity.”

Britain grants extraordinary powers to its security services. “The public interest defence, [sic] used by news organizations to fight orders under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act carries little weight with Terrorism Act orders,” The Independent reported, referring to a law that governs surveillance and the interception of communications.

And, as CPJ documented in its recent report on the EU and press freedom, the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters has scooped up emails to and from journalists working for some of the U.S. and UK’s largest media organizations. The authorities’ reaction to The Guardian’s coverage of surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency was also ruthless. The paper reported in 2013 that it had been forced to destroy hard drives containing information related to the investigative report after the government threatened legal action. Also in 2013, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations on the NSA, David Miranda, a Brazilian national and partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained at Heathrow airport while traveling between Berlin and Rio. UK high court judges considered the detention legal and proportionate, a view Miranda is due to challenge at the Court of Appeals next month, reports said.

The government’s counter-extremism strategy announced in mid-October has also been criticized by freedom of expression groups. “Proposed UK government measures on extremism will criminalize legitimate speech,” Index on Censorship, a freedom of expression organization, said in a statement on October 19. As well as measures focused on schools, mosques, and public institutions, the strategy provides the UK’s broadcasting regulator Ofcom with increased power to take action against radio and television channels broadcasting extremist content. It also requires Internet service providers to do more to take down extremist content and track those posting it, according to reports.

These developments in the UK tie in with similar initiatives in the EU, which risk undermining press freedom in the name of fighting terrorism. Of particular concern is a resolution adopted on October 20 by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the European Parliament and due to be submitted for a plenary vote next month. Provisions included in the resolution, such as requiring privately owned companies to act as censors of content ruled to be extremist, are deemed to have serious consequences for freedom of expression.

The introduction of counter-terrorism measures and the action against “Newsnight’s” Kermani appear to prove the fears shared by several journalists and members of press freedom groups with whom CPJ spoke earlier this year. As Joe McNamee, director of Brussels-based network European Digital Rights, said, “If a journalist is searching on criminality or corruption, there is a chance that he/she will attract attention.”