January 19, 2007 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Alarm about bill that would increase police search powers in Northern Ireland

Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about a bill currently being discussed by the Parliamentary Assembly of Northern Ireland. Entitled the “Draft policing - Miscellaneous Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 2007,” it would extend the powers of the police to search and seize documents. The organisation wrote yesterday to Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain warning him about the threats that this bill poses to press freedom and the confidentiality of journalists' sources, and asking him to intervene to ensure that they do not materialise. “As you know, the work of journalists depends closely on their ability to protect the confidentiality of their sources,” the letter said. “This essential condition for investigative journalism is seriously threatened by this bill. The letter continued: “Under this law, the police would no longer have to produce such explicit evidence as they are currently required to show in order to obtain permission to carry out a search and seize documents. The new prerogatives would also allow them to confiscate documents or electronic files for a period of 48 hours, which could be extended to 96 hours if the files had to be translated or deciphered. Reporters Without Borders pointed out in the letter that journalists have been subject to harassment and threats and that controversial searches of premises and homes of journalists have taken place in recent years in Northern Ireland. “We are convinced that the adoption of this bill would do a great deal of harm to press freedom and the process of normalisation in this region,” the letter concluded. To find out more about this bill, read below an article written for Reporters Without Borders by british journalist Glyn Roberts : ------------------ A bill is currently being discussed by the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland, entitled the Draft policing - Miscellaneous Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order, which would considerably extend the powers of the police to search for and seize documents and computer files. The proposed new police powers could eventually be extended throughout the United Kingdom. They are contained in Article 13 of UK draft legislation entitled Draft Policing (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007. The order is currently being circulated for public consultation until January 22, and will then require parliamentary approval, subject to any amendments. It is expected to come into effect by the spring or summer of this year. These enhanced powers relate only to Northern Ireland, but the national situation regarding the threat of serious crime and terrorism is under review, and a government official in Northern Ireland Office said she understood that consideration might be given to extending the measures throughout the UK in the future. She said: "The police have requested these powers." There remained a threat of serious and organised crime and terrorism, and the police felt they needed these powers due to the increasingly sophisticated nature of some serious crime. Paul Goggins, the Northern Ireland minister with responsibility for security, told members of the region's legislative assembly last week that police would not be able to "go around willy-nilly seeking documents. There has to be a rationale". He said that, having examined such documents or files, an officer must have "a reasonable suspicion that a crime has taken place". "We still feel that certain powers are needed to reflect the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland," said Mr Goggins. "There's a remaining threat, and it is that remaining threat that has to be taken seriously, whether that is in investigation of bomb-making equipment or in relation to organised criminality. It is a diminishing threat but it is still there, and the police have to have the powers to deal with it." The proposed measures place less requirement upon police to demonstrate an explicit reason to suspect crime before they search for and seize records. Under the new powers, officers investigating a serious crime would be able to remove documents or electronic files from a property for examination. They could hold these for up to 48 hours to examine them, with the provision for a possible extension to 96 hours if necessary for reasons such as deciphering/translation. Journalists in Northern Ireland have protested at proposals to extend the powers of police to seize documents and computer files, saying the move could threaten press freedom and the protection of confidential sources of information. One local politician, Alex Attwood, security spokesman for the Social Democratic and Labour Party, says the plans could allow the police to "go into any building under a lawful search, and seize any document, even if there is no suspicion of that document being relevant to crime". Séamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the London-based National Union of Journalists, said he would write a letter, expressing his concern, to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain. "The NUJ has a particular concern at the abuse of searches because of our past experience of 'fishing expeditions' by securityforces in raids on the homes of reporters and photographers," said Mr Dooley. "We have experienced such behaviour in the past where notebooks were unlawfully seized. There must be an onus on the security forces not just to obtain a lawful warrant but also to justify the need for seizure. That need must be based on firmly grounded suspicions."In relation to journalists the NUJ has a particular concern because of the threat to confidential sources posed by searches." Mr Attwood had publicly criticised the proposals following a debate by the Northern Ireland legislative assembly's policing and justice committee on Januray 8. He said: "How can you on the one hand normalise Northern Ireland society and on the other hand give the police this enormous power?" Mr Dooley said: "The NUJ shares Mr Atwood's concerns at the proposed granting of extended powers of unrestricted seizure to the security forces. It would not be acceptable to grant powers of seizure, which take no account of the level of suspicion. The power to seize documents must not be abused, and care must be taken to ensure that the right to search is exercised only where there are grounds for suspicion."He concluded that the "granting of unrestricted powers - far in excess of current anti-terror measures in England or Wales - cannot be justified at this time and would represent a serious assault on civil liberty". Journalists are concerned that the new powers will make it easier for police to conduct "fishing exercises" through the notes and computers of reporters and photographers - jeopardising press freedom and exposing journalists and their confidential contacts to potential threats. Two cases in recent years have drawn sharp protests from media workers. One website journalist, Anthony McIntyre, had his home raided in 2003 by police who took away his computer, disks and notebooks, saying they were looking for stolen documents. Mr McIntyre called it "political policing, censorship and a trawl for my contacts". He got his property back after protesting that the raid was unlawful. Liam Clarke, the Northern Ireland editor of London's Sunday Times, and his wife Kathryn Johnston had their home raided in 2003 after they published leaked transcripts of telephone conversations between a senior Republican politician and government officials. Mr Clarke says the authorities had sought to create a "chill factor" by using heavy-handed policing to stifle investigative reporting. But the couple complained to the Police Ombudsman who ruled the police action unlawful - leading, in September 2006, to a compensation payment by the police.

Glyn Roberts