The Society of Editors has added its name to a chorus of bodies concerned that new legislation aimed at tackling crime and security will harm press freedoms.
Parliament will today (Thursday, January 31) debate the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill which several organisations fear will damage the ability of journalists to carry out investigations and compromise their sources.
“As with so many attempts to strengthen the powers to keep us safe, this proposed legislation in fact is in danger of harming some of the very liberties that we as a society hold dear,” commented the Society’s Executive Director Ian Murray.
“By giving police the power to access emails the new legislation endangers the confidentiality of sources that the media relies upon, but also of course so does society.
“Whistleblowers and sources for important investigations into the rich and powerful must feel confident their identities will be protected.
“It is important that the police are provided with powers to track down criminals that use the web, but as in all such cases there must be safeguards that prevent such powers being abused or used for completely different purposes to which they were intended.” Added Murray.
The National Union of Journalists, News Media Association, Reporters Without Borders and a number of press freedom groups have all criticised the new Bill for lacking basic journalistic safeguards, similar those in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
The new bill creates a general power for the police to access electronic communications which are stored on overseas servers, including those belonging to social media companies, for the first time
The bill would also create a new framework for overseas courts to gain access to UK-based data via reciprocal agreements.
A letter jointly signed by eight NGOs including Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres), Big Brother Watch and Index on Censorship urged MPs and peers to ensure the new bill “mirrors the existing safeguards in UK production orders as a minimum”.
Rebecca Vincent, RSF’s UK bureau director, told the UK Press Gazette: “We are concerned about the press freedom implications of this bill, particularly in light of other moves that could serve to further restrict press freedom in the UK, such as the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, and a recent proposal by [intelligence department] GCHQ that would force a backdoor into encryption tools.
“Journalists – particularly those doing public interest investigative reporting – must have confidence that their data is secure in order to guarantee source protection and be able to do their jobs.”
The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, currently awaiting Royal Assent, was subject to similar criticism, but lobbying from groups including RSF and the NMA, resulted in improvements for journalists.
The Home Office has tabled a number of amendments to recognise journalists’ concerns, including one which states a judge must be satisfied the electronic data under application is likely to be relevant evidence, unless it is a terrorism investigation.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The tools available to our law enforcement must be fit for the online world in which we live. Ninety-nine per cent of data linked to child abuse is held overseas and the faster we get it the quicker we can stop abusers.
“We have listened to concerns and made sure that journalists will be informed in advance of an application being made to the court. This will give them the opportunity to make representations to the judge at the time of the application.”
Security Minister Ben Wallace told UK Press Gazette he believed the bill struck the right balance between not excluding journalistic material entirely “because I do not believe that anyone should be above the law no matter what their profession”, and giving them “notice that other people would not be given, to allow them to make representations”.
“All the way through this process, even in considering the controversial part of the bill, we should not forget that this is done before a judge. It is not done between officials in two administrations: these orders will be applied for in front of a court and granted by a judge.”