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We need to fight planned law threatening journalistic freedom

By Paul Connolly

Published 12/08/2016

The battle for freedom of expression is never-ending, even in democratic countries like the UK.

Every new year brings another attempt to nibble away at this cherished freedom (which underpins all our other freedoms, because every other law was first thought of and debated, before being written down and put into practice).

There have been numerous threats to media freedoms in the UK.

Some, admittedly, are the unintended consequences of well-meaning actions and laws that simply hadn't been thought through.

Others are more nefarious, intended to curtail free speech itself and also to use journalistic activity as an intelligence-finding tool.

One such attempt is currently ongoing. It is the Investigatory Powers Bill and it is currently passing through parliament.

Significantly, the Bill allows the police and security services to mount surveillance of every step of a journalist's investigation.

It allows digital trails to be used against the reporter and his or her source. This means, effectively, against the public as well.

The upshot is that confidential journalist sources and whistle-blowers, who have been described as the "bedrock of a free, open and democratic society", will be left identifiable. This is despite the fact that special legislation at UK and EU level has been reserved to protect whistle-blowers and journalist sources.

Some of this is already happening. As I've previously reported, the PSNI is believed to use the controversial "snoopers charter" - the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) - to pry on journalistic activity.

They won't confirm it, of course, but it doesn't take a genius to work things out.

Last year, citing "national security", the PSNI refused to answer a Freedom of Information request on whether it used RIPA against journalists.

The proper system, which prevailed for a long time, is that parliament and the law mandated the police and others who were investigating crime to apply to a judge for an order to obtain journalistic material.

The media was allowed into the hearing so it could put its counter-arguments.

Judges, including the possibility of appeal court judges, weighed both the laws and the public interest before making, or declining to make, an order.

This has been whittled away by RIPA, the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill and, I'm sorry to say, in some cases also because of police malpractice.

A particular threat is the Investigatory Powers Bill. A campaign, led by the Press Gazette, is under way to try and get it amended.

Campaigners believe, correctly, that the Bill, as currently formulated, allows the state to:

√ covertly open up encrypted media databases of untransmitted, or unpublished, material and journalists' own mobile devices;

√ view journalists' communications records (who called who, when and where);

√ turn reporters' mobile phones into tools of surveillance.

In the words of Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford: "Sources could be put at risk. Journalists could be put in danger by being seen as proxy agents of the state.

"We are asking that the same protection for journalistic activities, information and sources should apply in the digital world as the physical one and that the Investigatory Powers Bill be amended."

There is more of concern in this odious Bill, which has led a range of legal and civil rights experts to voice concern. Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem MPs have joined the chorus.

If you're concerned, too, please sign the petition via the Press Gazette website.

Belfast Telegraph

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