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February 5, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:01am

Charges dropped against Kent protest photographer as Culture Sec grilled on press freedom

By Charlotte Tobitt

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has dodged questions about press freedom concerns in the UK after a photographer was arrested and a Huffpost journalist subjected to a Twitter attack from a Government minister.

Dowden responded to questions about both incidents in Parliament on Thursday by referring to the UK’s intention to publish an action plan on improving journalists’ safety “very shortly”.

The Culture Secretary said: “Freedom of expression is one of the cherished liberties that we have fought for, and one that Members of this House have defended for generations.

“I fully intend to continue to promote freedom of expression. As part of that, we will be publishing the plan for the protection of journalists, which will be coming forward shortly.”

[Read more: Photographer arrested and held by Kent Police for seven hours for covering detention centre protest]

NUJ-accredited photojournalist Andy Aitchison (pictured) was last week arrested at his home on suspicion of criminal damage after photographing a protest at Covid-hit asylum centre Napier Barracks in Kent.

He has already been unable to report on subsequent incidents, including a suspected arson attack, as his bail conditions ban him from going near the site.

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He had been released on bail until 22 February but charges were dropped on Friday (today) and police returned his memory card and mobile phone following intervention from the National Union of Journalists.

Aitchison said: “Today I received a call from the arresting police officer on my case. She said that I had been refused charges as there was no evidence to charge me with criminal damage and that my bail conditions were cancelled.

“I attended the police station to retrieve my equipment and when asked for ID I again showed my NUJ press card.”

The NUJ is now calling for an investigation into Kent Police.

Kate Goold, a partner at Bindmans who supported Aitchison following his arrest, said: “It is of great concern when the police arrest journalists and photographers for simply doing their job and has a chilling effect on press freedom.

“Public interest journalists are essential to our democracy to document and publicise events as they unfold, especially during Covid lockdown when the public cannot witness such protests themselves.

“Through the support of the NUJ, we were able to act swiftly to ensure that Mr Aitchison had no further action taken and his phone and memory card returned, without the police viewing this confidential journalistic material.”

Aitchison’s case has raised concerns under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act as his memory card was seized seemingly without an order from a judge, and under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act protecting freedom of expression.

Natasha Hirst, chair of the NUJ’s Photographers’ Council, said: “His arrest and the seizure of material will alarm not just journalists but anyone who values independent coverage and scrutiny of those in power.

“It is vital that our members have the right to cover protests and publish their images without the fear of arrest censoring how they go about their work.”

Press Gazette has asked questions of Kent Police, the National Police Chiefs Council, the Home Office and the Foreign Office, which co-ordinates the UK’s global media freedom campaign, but each authority either declined to comment on the ongoing investigation or pointed us elsewhere.

Damian Collins, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on media freedom and Aitchison’s local MP, said he hopes to raise the case in the Commons on Monday.

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle has asked a written question of the Home Office, due for a response by Monday, asking what assessment the department has made of the effect on press freedom of Aitchison’s arrest and similar incidents in Northern Ireland of journalists arrested while covering protests.

Kim Johnson, also a Labour MP, raised Aitchison’s case in Parliament on Thursday, asking what steps were being taken “to prevent undue interference with the freedom of the press to freely report on the conditions in which asylum seekers are held”.

Dowden referred only to the Government’s imminent plan to protect journalists, which is expected to include steps that can better protect journalists from violence and threats for doing their jobs.

[Read more: John Whittingdale says national action plan is first priority for committee on journalists’ safety]

It is unclear how this plan could be applied to assist in either of the cases raised in the past week.

Minister’s Twitter attack condemned

Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch’s Twitter thread dubbing routine right-of-reply questions from Huffpost journalist Nadine White “creepy and bizarre” and accusing the news outlet of trying to “sow distrust” is still online one week later.

White had been forced to make her Twitter profile private after being sent abuse as a result.

The BBC reported on Friday that Number 10’s adviser on ethnic minorities Samuel Kasumu wrote and then retracted a resignation letter in which he described Badenoch’s treatment of White as “concerning”.

“More concerning than the act, was the lack of response internally,” he wrote.

“It was not OK or justifiable, but somehow nothing was said. I waited, and waited, for something from the senior leadership team to even point to an expected standard, but it did not materialise.”

Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister’s press secretary, said earlier this week that Badenoch’s actions “would not be how we in No 10 deal with these things” but refused to tell the minister to delete her posts.

Stratton added: “The Prime Minister believes in the role of journalism to hold us all to account and would encourage Nadine White to continue doing that.”

White has written that she found her “ordeal to be humiliating and stressful” especially while she is mourning her sister who recently died from Covid-19.

[Read more: No 10 defends minister who called Huffpost journalist’s request for comment ‘creepy and bizarre’]

“Free press is essential to the function of any democracy,” White said. “The minister’s attack suggests that power should not be held to account which threatens a dangerous precedent indeed.”

Numerous press freedom and freedom of expression groups, including Index on Censorship, Article 19 and the International Federation of Journalists, have filed a media freedom alert with the Council of Europe over Aitchison’s treatment.

A News Media Association spokesperson said: “This case raises serious concerns about press freedom. As the eyes and ears of the public, journalists must be able to report upon matters of public interest without fear of arrest or other forms of interference by the police.

“The UK should be a beacon for media freedom across the globe but incidents such as these tarnish that reputation and, ultimately, undermine our democratic way of life.”

Similar alarm has been raised about Badenoch’s actions, with Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray saying: “This response by the Minister goes to the heart of the Society’s concerns over politicians espousing the importance of a free press and the protection of journalists, while undermining public trust in the media in their actions.”

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