Law reform organisation Justice has said the arrest of journalists “might become commonplace” should the forthcoming Public Order Bill pass into law.
The warning comes after three journalists were arrested by Hertfordshire Police for covering Just Stop Oil protests this week.
The detentions, which came despite the journalists showing police their press cards, have prompted outrage in the news industry and beyond.
Documentarian Rich Felgate, photographer Tom Bowles and LBC reporter Charlotte Lynch were arrested on Tuesday while covering a Just Stop Oil eco-protest on the M25.
Felgate and Bowles were held for 13 hours and Lynch five. Bowles said three officers arrived at his home at 11pm, woke his wife and daughter and carried out a search, and he only arrived home at 3.30am.
Herts Police stood by the arrests, saying that “these circumstances did give us grounds to hold them in custody for questioning in order to verify their credentials and progress our investigation”.
The force’s police and crime commissioner David Lloyd appeared on LBC on Thursday, advising the station: “Your editorial policy needs to reflect on whether or not we want to be part of the problem, which is how Just Stop Oil manage to get their message out there so very successfully.”
Justice advised that such arrests could become “commonplace” should the Public Order Bill become law.
Tyrone Steele, a criminal lawyer at Justice, said: “These incidents clearly demonstrate the broad range of powers that already exist to police protests and show how they can be misused to stifle press freedom…
“These arrests foreshadow what might become commonplace if the Public Order Bill is passed. The Bill creates a swathe of new criminal offences that are so broad they have the potential to capture a vast range of ordinary peaceful behaviour, including journalists covering protests.
The bill – the subject of Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s infamous “tofu-eating wokerati” comments in the Commons – provides new stop and search powers for police and, according to critics, may allow for the detention of anyone suspected of intending to join an obstructive protest.
The Government argues the legislation is necessary to curtail protests like those by Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, which have repeatedly sought to block road traffic.
Steele said: “These powers are made worse through the proposed introduction of Protest Banning Orders, which could be applied to people with the most tangential connection to a protest, from shopkeepers who sell protesters glue, soup, or cake, to journalists covering protests as a part of their work.
“These orders could result in journalists being banned from attending protests, restrictions on their internet usage, GPS ankle taking and, if breached, imprisonment.
“These arrests demonstrate the risks that new police powers could be used disproportionately, serving as a chilling effect on our fundamental rights to freedom of speech, expression, and assembly.”
Civil rights campaign group Liberty also criticised the bill. The organisation’s policy and campaigns officer, Jun Pang, said: “The Government is trying to resurrect dangerous anti-protest proposals that the people and Parliament have already loudly rejected just months ago.
“In recent years we’ve seen this Government hand out sweeping powers to police which have been used to create a hostile environment for protesters and an increasingly dangerous working environment for journalists who face intimidation and arrest for simply doing their jobs. But this is not an isolated incident.
“The Public Order Bill will have a chilling effect on the right to protest, criminalising anyone attempting to make themselves heard. The arrests we’ve seen this week show that we are heading in the wrong direction. In a functioning democracy, everyone must be able to stand up to power.”
The Home Office hit out against the rights groups’ warnings. A spokesperson told Press Gazette: “These claims are inflated and spurious. Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy and journalists must be able to do their job.
“We want to protect press freedoms – and that’s what our Public Order Bill does. Previously protesters have tried shutting down printing presses, which is completely unacceptable and our bill is designed to tackle this kind of disruption”.
The National Union of Journalists weighed in on the arrests, with general secretary Michelle Stanistreet saying the union had “raised this directly with the National Police Chiefs Council” and Herts Police.
Stanistreet said: “We now call upon the National Police Chiefs’ Council to take immediate action to ensure this is prevented in future by all police forces who are overseeing the issues of public order associated with the Just Stop Oil protests being conducted on the M25 and elsewhere.
“A central, key aspect of this has to be initial identification of the status of such news gatherers on the basis of their holding of the UK Press Card Authority Press Card, as recognised by the National Police Chiefs’ Council itself.”
College of Policing guidelines advise police that they have “no power or moral responsibility to stop the filming or photographing of incidents or police personnel”.
Asked whether Herts Police had acted in line with its guidance, the College of Policing referred Press Gazette back to the force itself – but emphasised its guidelines, including advice that when dealing with media personnel:
- “Movement should not be restricted provided that they do not interfere with the police operation, or jeopardise their own safety or that of others”
- “Production of a UK Press Card should allow the holder release from any area subject to containment, unless the behaviour of the holder is cause for concern.”
Asked for its view on the arrests, a National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesperson said: “Journalists have a right to report at any form of protest and the freedom of the press is essential.
“When you’re there and policing, there is a huge amount of pressure to swiftly move things on and it is regrettable that journalists were caught up in that.
“All protests come with an enormous amount of pressure for policing. Journalists shouldn’t be prevented from legitimately doing their jobs.”
Another forthcoming piece of legislation, the National Security Bill, has also been criticised by press freedom campaign groups in recent weeks.
Press Gazette reported on Monday that Guardian News and Media had made a submission to the government arguing: “The only safeguard for whistleblowers and journalists in the draft bill is that the Attorney-General has to consent to prosecutions and also that the Crown Prosecution Service has to consider that prosecution is in the public interest.”
On Thursday the NUJ, Open Democracy, Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship issued a joint statement slamming the National Security Bill. They said: “Obtaining or sharing protected information, or information that is subject to any type of restriction of access, far beyond classified materials, greatly expands the state’s control over what journalists report on and significantly restricts the public’s right to know.”
Picture: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images
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