Last night, in response to amendments tabled by Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb and supported by Hacked Off, the Government agreed to pursue new protections for journalists from stop and search powers in the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill. As it stands, the bill would require individuals to hand over all information and articles requested of them at borders, without grounds for suspicion of wrongdoing – including journalistic material. The Government indicated the new protections would come in the form of improvements to the relevant Code of Practice.
Hacked Off had written to Peers earlier in the day sharing a letter co-signed by other free expression campaigners and the lawyer who acted for David Miranda urging the Government to act on these concerns. Miranda was detained at Heathrow airport in 2013 under similar powers and was forced to hand over his belongings which were suspected to include information relating to the NSA revelations, which his partner, a former Guardian journalist, was working on at the time.
In the debate, the government conceded the need for increased protections:
“I recognise the force of the noble Baroness’s arguments on the need for strong protections for journalistic material that is not confidential. I will therefore ask my officials to consider if any additional protections may be introduced through the Schedule 3 codes of practice.”
Baroness Williams of Trafford, Minister of State for the Home Office
Hacked Off’s Director of Policy Nathan Sparkes said:
“The Government’s commitment to look again at the lack of protections for journalists from these powers is welcome, although it remains to be seen whether an improved Code of Practice will be sufficient to provide journalists and their sources with the protection they need.
“Without reform, journalists and their sources would have no protection from dangerous new powers in this bill which will allow information to be seized at borders, regardless of its journalistic confidentiality. That could include compromising information about business leaders, heads of state, or other wealthy and powerful individuals; it could include contact books filled with the details of sources operating in hostile environments.
“This government has a poor record on media freedom, following repeated interferences in press regulatory matters, suppression of the Leveson Part Two inquiry into allegations of police and political corruption, and previous investigatory powers legislation which would have allowed police access to journalists’ call data without oversight – so any revisions to the Schedule 3 Code of Practice must be carefully scrutinized to ensure the necessary protections are there.
“Hacked Off will continue to pursue this matter such that journalists are permitted to carry out their work free from intimidation and interference by the state.”
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