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04 October 2018

NMA Warns Stop And Search Powers Threaten Journalistic Sources

Sweeping new stop and search powers contained within the draft counter terrorism regime pose a direct threat to journalists’ ability to protect anonymous sources, the News Media Association has warned.  

Ahead of a Lords debate on the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill next week, the NMA has said that some of the proposed new powers could endanger legitimate reporting of terrorism in the public interest.

The NMA has called on peers to introduce robust journalistic safeguards to the stop and search powers such as making protection of a source a lawful reason to refuse to answer questions, and making it possible to assert journalistic privilege as a reason not to hand over confidential written material to an examining officer at border crossings.

The NMA said: “Schedule 3 contains sweeping powers to stop, question, detain and seize property that threaten the ability of journalists to protect their sources. Anonymous sources are the lifeblood of any journalism which seeks to challenge official versions of events.

“If sources have no expectation of confidentiality, they will not come forward with information in the public interest. The crime, corruption and wrong-doing that they would have exposed will continue and society will suffer.”

In a briefing for peers ahead of the debate on Tuesday, the NMA has highlighted a number of provisions within the Bill which could chill journalism such as the creation of a new offence of obtaining or viewing information which could be useful for preparing an act of terrorism.

“We fear this new offence places journalists researching and reporting on terror and extremism at risk of prosecution,” the NMA said.  “As drafted, the clause could capture The Times’s expose of how companies, charities and public bodies have been inadvertently funding extremism because of algorithms placing their ads on jihadist and other extremist websites and YouTube videos, as well as the work newspapers have done exposing the ease with which hate preachers and terrorist manuals can be located on search engines and social media.”

The NMA has also highlighted other areas in which the regime could impact negatively upon journalism and freedom of speech such as the creation of a new offence of expressing an opinion that is supportive of a proscribed organisation, which could chill debate on important issues.

Criminalising the publication online of an item of clothing or another article which arouses suspicion that the person is a supporter of a proscribed organisations risks catching huge swathes of publications with the new offence, the NMA added. 

The NMA said: “There are provisions in this Bill that endanger the ability of journalists to fulfil their important role of investigating and reporting on terrorism, extremism, and national security issues, as well as their ability to protect their sources. There is a need to curb discretionary powers, and to provide and enforce protections for journalists at every stage.”