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October 25, 2018updated 30 Sep 2022 7:00am

Campaign groups urge Lords to rethink new counter-terror laws with ‘extremely worrying implications for press freedom’

By Charlotte Tobitt

Nine press freedom and human rights campaign groups have jointly urged the House of Lords to rethink new counter-terror laws that “risk chilling free speech and curbing journalistic inquiry”.

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill would restrict freedom of expression and press freedom, threaten the protection of journalistic sources and limit the right to access information online, the groups said.

Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres), Committee on the Administration of Justice  Liberty, Article 19, National Union of Students, Big Brother Watch, Rights Watch UK and Open Rights Group shared the joint statement today ahead of the bill’s next appearance on Monday at the House of Lords committee stage.

Rebecca Vincent, UK bureau director for RSF, said: “This bill has extremely worrying implications for press freedom and the protection of journalistic sources.

“We have underscored our concerns over a number of specific clauses that should be struck, or at a very minimum, amended to include clear exemptions for journalistic activities.

“We call on Lords to carefully scrutinise this problematic bill and amend it to ensure that it does not contribute to further deterioration of UK press freedom.”

Clause 1 of the bill would criminalise expressing an opinion that is “supportive” of a proscribed terrorist organisation if the person does so in a way that is “reckless” and encourages someone else to support a group.

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The campaigners said: “The vaguely defined offence comes far too close to making opinion a crime.

“It would shut down democratic debate: who would dare to argue in favour of removing an organisation from the proscribed list if you risk ten years in prison?”

Clause 3 would make it a crime to view online content that is likely to be useful for terrorism, even if you have no terrorist intent, and carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

The clause carries a “reasonable excuse” defence, but the campaign groups said it would make the work of investigative journalists and academic researchers “difficult or impossible”.

The bill was debated in the Commons last month when Security Minister Ben Wallace told MPs the “reasonable excuse” defence covers “individuals who have a valid reason to enter and remain in a designated area, such as to provide humanitarian aid, to work as a journalist, or to attend a funeral of a close relative”.

However, SNP MP Gavin Newlands suggested the new offence was not “necessary or proportionate” and could lead to journalists choosing not to travel to affected areas.

Section 3 of the bill would bring in a “vaguely defined” crime of “hostile activity”, the campaigners said, alongside wide-ranging new powers to stop, search and detain.

The groups shared concerns that this could mean a journalist taking a domestic flight could be stopped without any suspicion of wrongdoing, while it would be an offence for the journalist not to answer questions or hand over materials, with no protection for confidential sources.

Special rules would apply in the border area in Northern Ireland, meaning that anyone could be stopped, whether the person was planning to cross the border or not.

Joy Hyvarinen, head of advocacy at Index on Censorship, said: “The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill would change the law on freedom of expression in Britain, restrict press freedom, damage academic research and endanger fundamental rights.

“The bill is fatally flawed and we urge the House of Lords to ensure that the government rethinks the bill”.

Gracie Bradley, policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, added: “By criminalising activities like overseas travel and browsing the web, this bill risks chilling free speech and curbing journalistic and academic inquiry.

“The Lords should reject it and the ill-judged expansion of power that it represents. It will not make us more safe, but it will make us less free.”

Thomas Hughes, executive director of Article 19, said the “extremely broad offences” within the proposed bill have “the potential to chill free speech and impede the right to seek information for people in the UK”.

He added that the Government has “not convincingly shown any need” for introducing these new offences.

Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, said: “’One click’’ criminalisation of viewing streamed content is not the answer to online radicalisation.

“It may be unclear to journalists or academics that they have a ‘reasonable excuse’ to view such content, and keep them from investigating serious issues.”

Picture: UK Parliament

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