February 5, 2019

New UK Counter-Terrorism legislation contains some journalistic protections, but threatens press freedom

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomes the inclusion of journalistic protections in specific clauses of the UK Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, but remains concerned about the press freedom implications of a number of problematic provisions that were retained in the final version of the bill. The bill passed after a ‘ping-pong’ debate between the House of Commons and House of Lords, which reached final stages on 22 January 2019.

With support from Doughty Street Chambers, RSF provided briefings for both the House of Commons and House of Lords, outlining press freedom concerns in specific clauses, and recommending that they be amended or struck from the bill. RSF also joined a group of broader freedom of expression and human rights NGOs in calling for amendments to the bill.

A number of the measures RSF advocated were reflected through amendments. Specifically, journalistic protections were added to Clauses 3 and 4, which pertained to the criminalisation of the repeated viewing of extremist content online, and the designation of ‘no-go’ zones overseas, which now will not apply to journalists.

However, a number of problematic clauses remained, including Clause 1, pertaining to expressions of support for a proscribed organisation; Clause 2, which criminalises the publication of certain images of clothing or other items; Clause 7, which significantly increases maximum sentences connected with expression and the collection and dissemination of information; Clause 13, providing for increased powers to enter and search home addresses; and Clause 21 and Schedule 3, which give authorities new powers to stop, question, search, and detain persons at ports and borders to determine whether someone is engaged in overly broadly defined “hostile activity”.

“We welcome the inclusion of specific journalistic exemptions in some clauses of the bill, which would have created ‘no-go’ zones for journalists and otherwise restricted their ability to do their jobs. However, other provisions of the bill remain threatening to the protection of journalistic sources and broader press freedom, which is worrying indeed given other ongoing legislative moves that could further restrict press freedom in the UK”, said RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.

The adoption of this legislation takes place against the backdrop of an overall worrying climate for press freedom in the UK. Another problematic bill, the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill, is in the final stages of parliamentary debate, and could put journalists’ data at risk. At the same time, a recent proposal by the government intelligence organisation GCHQ, would force an encryption backdoor, further threatening journalists’ ability to communicate securely and guarantee source protection.

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill will take effect once it receives Royal Assent.

The UK is ranked 40th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index.