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October 10, 2016

Press freedom groups warn UN that Investigatory Powers Bill threatens journalistic sources

By Dominic Ponsford

Two leading  UK freedom of expression groups have warned the United Nations that the Surveillance and Investigatory Powers bills presents a threat to journalistic sources.

The warning is outlined in a review of freedom of speech issues conducted by English Pen and Article 19 for the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review of the UK.

The bill, referred to as the “snooper’s charter”, has cleared the House of Commons and is currently at the report stage in the House of Lords.

A broad range of UK media organisations have urged the Government to add new protections to the bill to protect journalistic sources from state surveillance.

Nearly 4,000 have signed a Press Gazette petition urging Home Secretary Amber Rudd to strengthen protections for journalistic sources in the bill.

The NUJ, News Media Association and others are particularly concerned that police requests to view journalists’ telecom records in order to view their sources will be made in secret with no opportunity for news organisations to argue the case for freedom of speech.

The joint letter to the UN warns the protection of sources is threatened by the IP Bill.

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It said of the bill: “It remains vague and lacks adequate protections for freedom of expression and privacy, and if enacted will introduce broad powers that threaten to undermine these rights.”

It says that powers for bulk surveillance and bulk interference with communications devices as being “inherently disproportionate”.

“There is no upper limit on the number of people whose private communications may be intercepted or whose data may be collected and retained,” the document says.

It says: “In many instances, anonymity is the precondition upon which information is conveyed by a source to a journalist (or human rights organisation). This may be motivated by fear of repercussions which might adversely affect their physical safety or job security.

“When sources cannot be sure of protection, the public loses its right to know critical information.”

It notes that Section 61 of the bill on the acquisition of communications data “for the purpose of identifying or confirming a source of journalistic information” imposes a low threshold for interference, requiring only “reasonable grounds” that a list of requirements was satisfied, dding: “This falls short of the requirement under Article 19 of the ICCPR (International Convention on Civil and Political Rights) that any interference must be necessary and proportionate.”

The two bodies recommend that the UK Government halts the progress of the bill and gives it a “fundamental reconsideration” taking action to “protect journalistic sources, encryption and the right to anonymity online”.

They have also express concern about Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act which states that publishers who are not members of a Royal Charter-approved press regulator must pay both sides’ costs in libel and privacy cases (even if they win).

The document states that this “creates the possibility of a media defendant having to bear all legal costs of a lawsuit with no limitation, potentially threatening the financial viability of small media actors.”

It warns that the Government’s decision to delay enacting this provision “has created a situation where it can exercise direct influence over the press”, using deployment of Section 40 as a “threat”.

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