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Police, Terrorists, Journalists

Nika Jazaee warns that the balance of power between journalists and the authorities is tipping too far in the wrong direction.

Against a backdrop of mounting concern over the threat of terrorism, I am most concerned about apparent readiness to limit what journalists can do and even criminalise them for reporting on matters of public interest; this is after all the role of journalists and journalism.

Journalists should not be confused with police investigators tasked with catching criminals. Journalists have a different role to play as society’s watchdogs, and we need to maintain that distinction.

Some people are clearly losing sight of it. In the Independent former security minister Dame Pauline Neville-Jones was quoted as saying: ‘We can perfectly well be informed about their views and attitudes without giving them access to mainstream media.’ Dame Pauline went on to complain that terrorists are being given access to a media corporation, i.e. the BBC, with ‘a reputation to preserve’. As if journalists contribute to terrorism by reporting on it. To the contrary, the BBC’s reputation is best maintained by unstinting coverage of terrorism and related issues. Or should we stop interviewing anyone connected to terrorism and withhold them from mainstream media? If yes, where would that leave us? And how will we progress if as citizens we are no longer able to know how their minds work?

Along similar lines, the definition of terrorism under section 1 of the Terrorism Act is dangerously wide-ranging, encompassing a whole spectrum of activity designed to ‘influence the government or intimidate the public’. It makes it very easy to say that there is a terrorism investigation going on and just as easy to get an order requiring journalists to divulge confidential material. This poses a double threat to journalists and their work: they risk being accused by their sources of collaborating with the police, while the police are increasingly likely to accuse them of collaborating with terrorists. Catch 22.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that many people falling under suspicion of terrorism are innocent. In any case I would prefer to hear my ‘enemies’ speaking for themselves. But how is this going to happen if people stop talking to journalists in confidence for fear that the journalist will be forced to reveal everything about them?

For instance, if a British citizen goes to Syria to fight Assad’s regime and then comes back to Britain, he would be classified in Britain as a terrorist. Similarly, in 2014 the arrest of David Miranda, partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was deemed a justifiable breach of press freedom on grounds of national security – and that was before the latest tranche of legislation tipped the balance even further away from journalists towards police and the state.

The fight to defeat terrorism has become a tool for British authorities and state agencies to jeopardise and attack press freedom. It would be a terrible pity to end up with a more regulated form of journalism after years of fighting to liberate it.

I personally would rather take the risk and fight for freedom of speech.



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