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  1. Media Law
February 19, 2024

Victory for Liberty in ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ fight to protect journalists’ sources

Spy agencies will now need to secure independent review before searching for journalistic material.

By Bron Maher

The UK Government has agreed to add safeguards to the so-called “Snoopers’ Charter” to ensure that intelligence services cannot access confidential journalistic material with impunity.

As currently implemented, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 allows spy agencies to search for and identify journalists’ sources by looking at data harvested through bulk hacking without seeking independent authorisation.

Following a legal challenge from human rights group Liberty, the Government says it will introduce an amendment requiring an independent review before intelligence agencies such as MI5 and MI6 can search for or retain journalists’ texts, emails or calls in bulk hacking data.

This mirrors protections which were put in place in 2015 to protect journalists’ sources when police access confidential phone records (following the Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign).

The requirement has been added to the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill which is to due be debated in the House of Commons on Monday.

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Liberty has been contesting the Investigatory Powers Act in a long-running legal action which is due to go before the High Court later this year. As a result of Monday’s concession the government has asked Liberty to drop this part of its suit.

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[Read more: High Court to review bulk collection of journalists’ data by UK law enforcement]

Safeguards in Investigatory Powers Act ‘a significant victory for the rights of journalists’

Liberty has “welcomed” the amendment but said it will not drop this part of the legal proceedings, which are supported by the National Union of Journalists, once the amendment has passed into law and there is more clarity on when the safeguards will go into effect.

Megan Goulding, a lawyer for Liberty, called the safeguards “a significant victory for the rights of journalists and the free press”.

“For close to a decade, confidential journalist material has been spied on en-masse with few safeguards or protections for how that information is gathered or used,” she said. “This undermines core pillars of our democracy, and has left journalists particularly exposed to state surveillance and interference.

“The introduction of a new requirement for an independent body to oversee when the intelligence agencies can search for and retain confidential journalistic material is a welcome development, and we urge the Government to commence these new safeguards in as soon as possible. 

“However, while this is good news for journalists, we remain concerned about the wider practice of mass surveillance, which means the state is continuing to hoover up the messages, calls, web history and more of millions of people. The state’s bulk surveillance powers do not make us safer – they threaten our privacy and freedom of expression, and undermine our democracy. The Government must now look to end the practice of bulk surveillance in its entirety.” 

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet added: “The Government’s improved safeguards for journalists are thanks to the commitment by Liberty and the NUJ to challenge harmful legislation permitting access to confidential journalistic material.

“The right to protect sources and journalists’ communications will always be defended by the NUJ, state bodies should never be granted unfettered access and the government’s ill-placed efforts should have been dropped several years ago.”

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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