Belfast Telegraph

Use of law an erosion of freedom

Editor's Viewpoint

It is scarcely believable that laws originally designed to trap terrorists are now being used by the BBC to uncover television licence dodgers. While in no way condoning those who don't pay the fee, the use of these laws in this way reinforces the widespread belief that they have become a snooper's charter allowing agencies to cast their net far wider than first envisaged.

While the BBC in response to inquiries from this newspaper admitted it used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), it declined to say how often or in what way. That is inexcusable given that the BBC is a publicly-funded body and should be answerable to its paymasters.

But what makes the use of RIPA ironic in this context is that the powers have been used to spy on journalists going about their legitimate business. One recent example was the use of RIPA by the Metropolitan Police to view the phone records of journalists on The Sun newspaper. That was to enable the Met to uncover the journalists' legitimate police sources.

Such use of RIPA has caused widespread alarm within the media as journalistic sources have always been regarded as confidential and indeed journalists have gone to jail rather than reveal them.

Currently, the Acquisition and Disclosure of Communications Data Draft Code of Practice is out for consultation - that closes in five days' time - but there are widespread concerns that it does nothing to protect journalists. Editors from across the UK have jointly written to the Home Office outlining their fears and highlighting the shortcomings of the draft code. Their argument is that it is in everyone's interest that the state recognises the over-arching importance of protecting the confidentiality of journalists' sources.

Unless people feel that their identities will be protected there will be no more public sector whistleblowers and the ability of journalists to bring the establishment or public bodies to account will be greatly curtailed. The editors say that agencies should require the permission of a judge before being able to request journalists' phone or other electronic communication records.

It smacks of Big Brother that laws designed to legitimately help safeguard national security are now being used to investigate minor crime by a whole plethora of agencies, most incredibly of all, the BBC. It is an erosion of freedom and must be resisted.

Belfast Telegraph

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