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Police officers are seen around Trafalgar Square in London on October 15, 2019. A U.K. agency recently released a report detailing surveillance efforts involving journalists. (AFP/Isabel Infantes)

UK report shows surveillance efforts involving journalists

March 9, 2020 12:35 PM ET

Bristol, U.K., March 9, 2020 -- Authorities in the United Kingdom should refrain from surveilling members of the press and should provide more transparency about surveillance efforts involving journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On March 5, the U.K. Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, an independent body which oversees surveillance programs by government agencies, released a report revealing that authorities requested six warrants for surveillance efforts that “would relate to journalistic confidential material” in 2018. The report says that judges were satisfied that the applications met the legal threshold, but did not provide details about the reasons for the warrants, whether they were executed, or which outlets or journalists were included in them.

The report also stated that law enforcement and state security agents made 203 communications data requests “in relation to an individual of journalistic profession” in 2018. The report noted that, in an unspecified number of cases, the requests were related to protecting the subject of the request, for example against harassment, but acknowledged that “statistics we produce in this area could be clearer.”

“While we welcome the disclosure by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office of some information about the U.K. government’s surveillance activities, the material that has been made public is far from sufficient,” said CPJ Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch in Washington, D.C. “The commissioner’s office needs to provide much more detailed disclosures to help journalists in the U.K. understand who is investigating them and enable recourse in cases of abuse.”

The report covered the activities of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office in 2018, the first full year that the office had been in operation since its founding the previous year under the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016. At the time, CPJ expressed concern that the act would give the U.K. government the power to monitor, intercept, and store communications data from tens of millions of people.

Tim Crook, president-elect of the Chartered Institute of Journalists, an independent professional organization, told CPJ in a statement that the report lacked clarity about “whether the identity of a journalist’s source was being sought, or risked being revealed.”

“Judicial oversight would be better served by full court hearings with representation by the publications and journalists affected,” Crook said.

The report notes that Crook requested more information about data requests relating to journalists, but states that responding in full would have been “prejudicial to national security.”

CPJ emailed the commissioner’s office for comment but did not immediately receive a response. After publication, a spokesperson said in a statement that it was working with the relevant public authorities to improve statistics regarding applications for confidential journalistic material and sources of journalistic information. The statement said the commissioner’s independent oversight of investigatory powers included robust, evidence-based inspections, but that policy in this area was determined by the government.

[Editors' Note: This article has been updated in its last paragraph to include the response from the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office. References to the office in paragraphs two and four, and to its report in the headline, have been corrected to reflect that it operates independently of the government.]

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