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13 September 2018

Government: Journalists Will Be Protected Under Counter Terrorism Laws

The Government has repeated assurances made to the News Media Association that journalists would be protected from the broad powers and offences in the new counter terrorism regime.

Security Minister Ben Wallace had written to the NMA over concerns that the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill lacks explicit safeguards for journalism and journalists could face criminal prosecution for researching legitimate stories in the public interest, or be forced to reveal their sources.  

During a Report Stage debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday, during which MPs from different parties raised concerns about journalistic protections in the regime, the Minister repeated his assurances and also said the safeguards would apply to a new a new offence of travelling to an area that has been “designated” added to the Bill by Home Secretary Sajid Javid.

Mr Wallace assured MPs that the offence would not catch those with a reason for travelling, and that the burden would be on the prosecution to show that the reason provided was insufficient.  He said: “Of course, there will be 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. To cover such cases, we have provided for a reasonable excuse defence.

“Once such a defence has been raised, the burden of proof, to the criminal standard, will rest with the prosecution to disprove the defence… If a person produces a reasonable defence, as it would play in court, we would have to say, 'That is not a valid defence,' and therefore we would have to prove why it is not. In addition, the public interest consideration will be involved when the CPS seeks to bring charges.”

The Minister also confirmed that this defence would work in the same way for the now expanded offence of viewing or otherwise accessing material that may be of use to a terrorist, categorically denying that it would be for those that raised the defence to prove it was reasonable.

He said: “The reasonable excuse defence is a good defence. It will cover journalists and academics, which is important. It would also mean that the prosecution is unlikely to commence in those circumstances, because it would not pass the Crown Prosecution Service threshold test of being in the public interest and of there being a realistic prospect of conviction.

“The police and the CPS are rightly focused on those who pose a genuine threat and have no interest in wasting their valuable time investigating and prosecuting people who pose no threat, where there is no public interest and no prospect of conviction.”

Other MPs supported the need to exclude journalists from the offences of travelling to designated areas and accessing terrorist information. Gavin Newlands, SNP, stressed that even though the defence was in place, the potential that it could fail would have a chilling effect on journalism and free speech. He said: “We have to ensure that the clause does not criminalise people who may view these documents with no nefarious intent, such as academics and journalists.

“A reasonable excuse defence is included in the proposal; however, people travelling to visit family, conduct research, document human rights abuses or undertake humanitarian relief could all be criminalised and imprisoned for up to 10 years should their reasonable excuse be found wanting.

“Some people will simply opt not to travel, which would have a chilling effect on family relationships, academic inquiry and investigative journalism. The likes of our fantastic correspondent David Pratt of the Herald and National may think twice before travelling to war and conflict zones to bring us the real story on the ground.”

Lib Dem Ed Davey highlighted that the lack of intention required had a chilling effect on journalism, even with the defence. He said: “The defence for viewing such material with good cause has actually been reduced, and I am not alone in thinking that. Amnesty International fears that there is a serious risk of a chilling effect on the freedom of inquiry, whether from journalists, academics or researchers.” 

He also emphasised that danger that the broad powers in Schedule 3 creates by giving examining officers the power to stop and search  people without having to justify their actions at any level. 

These comments come in the same week that the European Commission announced proposals that Google, Facebook, and Twitter must remove extremist content within an hour or face severe fines. 

In the annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament, Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said that platforms were being too slow in responding to extremist content, and could face fines of up to four per cent of their annual global turnover if the proposal is adopted.