The investigatory powers bill – or ‘snoopers’ charter’ – endangers press freedom, and offers no protection for sources or whistleblowers
The investigatory powers bill, which will receive its second reading in parliament on Tuesday, contains a range of surveillance powers available to the security services, police and other public bodies.
The first draft last year raised alarm bells, including amongst the three cross-party parliamentary committees that voiced serious concerns. Yet it took the Home Office just two weeks to cobble together this re-draft that in no way resolves the bill’s serious flaws.
Farcically, concerns about privacy have been addressed by inserting one word into a heading. Part one of the investigatory powers bill was called “general protections” and is now called “general privacy protections”. This is how the government has responded to the parliamentary intelligence committee recommendation that “privacy protections should form the backbone of the draft legislation”.
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The NUJ has been campaigning for improved laws and protections since a police report in 2014 revealed the Sun’s political editor’s mobile phone records and call data from the newsdesk had been seized in secret by police. When the British state has a total disregard for the protection of sources and whistleblowers then there are severe consequences for all journalists and press freedom.
Not least will be the impact on journalists’ safety. Reporters who work in dangerous environments – in a war zone or when investigating organised crime – are already targeted. Being seen as agents of the state, or a conduit to information about their sources, will make their work fraught with greater dangers. The independence of journalists, and the very notion of press freedom, is something that is critical to our collective safety and credibility.
In its essence, this bill is exploiting public concerns about terrorism and national security as an excuse to spy on journalists.
One section of the bill allows for “equipment interference”, enabling the authorities to access computers and electronic equipment. This interference includes hacking computers to gain access to passwords, documents, emails, diaries, contacts, pictures, chat logs and location records. Microphones or webcams could be turned on and items stored could be altered or deleted. Under the bill, journalists have no right to challenge this type of surveillance – in fact it is highly unlikely they would ever find out it has happened.
If journalists don’t know their work and their sources are being compromised then it becomes practically impossible to uphold our ethical principle to protect sources and whistleblowers.
The NUJ has a long and proud record of defending members from having to identify their sources, including backing a legal case in 1996 that fixed the journalists’ “right to silence” in European law.
That’s only possible if there is a transparent mechanism to challenge such demands for information on sources – if the state can get their hands on that information without a journalist ever knowing, how can we support the countless individuals who are brave enough to blow the whistle on information they believe the public needs to know about?
In 2015 a report by the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office revealed that 19 police forces had made 608 applications for communications data to find journalistic sources over a three-year period. Applications made and considered in secret.
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In response the previous culture secretary, Sajid Javid, said “journalism is not terrorism” and the government promised to introduce safeguards. Despite a series of interim measures being put in place, none of the key ones are in this new bill. The cross-party parliamentary joint committee said that the “protection for journalistic privilege should be fully addressed by way of substantive provisions on the face of the bill”. Yet this government has turned its face and ignored the recommendation.
The bill also introduces legislative anomalies – there is no adherence to standards already established in legislation such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and Terrorism Act 2000. The bill contains no requirement to notify a journalist, media organisation or their legal representatives when the authorities intend to put journalists under surveillance or hack into their electronic equipment. There is no right to challenge or appeal and the entire process takes place in secret. The oversight measures do not involve any media experts who can advocate on behalf of journalists and press freedom. This is an outrageous abuse of press freedom in the UK.
The NUJ is not alone in having grave concerns about this latest version of the bill – we are joined by others in the media industry, trade unions, legal experts, and privacy and human rights campaigners. These extremely intrusive and unnecessary surveillance powers trample over the very principles of journalism and will be a death knell for whistleblowers of the future. There are a growing number of politicians waking up to the dangers in this bill and we hope others will think hard before they cast their vote on Tuesday.