Journalists and campaign groups have voiced concerns over new legislation that could see reporters and editors arrested under anti-terror laws for obtaining information about, or reporting on, the armed forces.
The Government’s Counter Terrorism Bill, currently working its way through Parliament, contains powers for police to arrest anyone for ‘eliciting, publishing or communicating information about a person who is, or has been, a member of HM forces which is likely to be useful to a person committing a terrorist offence”.
Clause 69 contains no public interest defence, though it does say prosecution would be ‘subject to a reasonable excuse”.
The Bill, which had its second reading in the Commons this week, is better known for its proposals to give police the power to hold terrorism suspects for up to 48 days without charge.
The Newspaper Society has written to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and junior justice minister Bridget Prentice to voice concerns in the newspaper industry, a move backed by the Society of Editors.
Santha Rasaiah, head of the Newspaper Society’s political and regulatory affairs department, said that the clause’s remit was wide enough to catch journalists in a huge number of everyday situations.
‘The media has already had to be wary of unjustified attempts to deter or control unwelcome investigation, reporting and other news coverage, and to suppress unwelcome publicity,’she said. ‘We are therefore concerned by the creation of new communication and publication offences of potentially wide and uncertain ambit”.
Rasaiah said that the Newspaper Society was seeking assurances that part 6 of the Bill would not ban journalists from some inquests.
The public can be banned under the current rules in cases affecting national security, but clause 65 of the Bill could make inquests secret in cases that might reveal information relating to Britain’s relationship with another state – or if the Secretary of State deems it otherwise in the public interest.
The Coroners’ Act 1988 states that a public inquest must be held to investigate all deaths in prison or those that occur in police custody.
Gordon Brown last year scrapped plans in a draft Coroners’ Bill to ban journalists from inquests at the coroner’s discretion.