Thursday, January 28News For London

Snooper’s Charter: Death Knell for UK Journalists?

The Draft Communications Data Bill, or Snooper’s Charter as it is most commonly referred to, was passed into a law last month, despite calls for it to be repealed from various groups. Proposed by Theresa May in 2012, in the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations, it legitimises the same mass surveillance which Snowden’s leak had shown the UK government was guilty of. In particular, the surveillance had targeted journalists from major media organisations, placing investigative journalists on a “threat” list. The new Bill, by allowing government organisations to snoop on all internet history, cuts off the freedom of journalists to research certain topics freely, especially those not aligned with the government agenda.

Snowden’s leaked documents had exposed how under PRISM, the covert NSA run programme, GCHQ was tapping into metadata of both British and non-British citizens using Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Skype. This explicitly violates Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights which guarantees the right to privacy and Article 10, which affords freedom of expression: the two pillars of a free Press.

Snowden tweeted saying that the Charter “legitimizes mass surveillance” and called it “the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West.” He warned that the communications data covered by it was essentially an “activity log of your life”. One of the common arguments by the general public for mass surveillance has been “I’ve got nothing to hide.” Referring to this defense, he added that saying that compares to stating “I don’t need free speech, I’ve nothing to say”, because rights equated with power of the people. For investigative jorunalists, where sources often need to be protected and sensitive information handled with care, this takes the lid off any possibility of secrecy and deters whistleblowers from coming forward.

Libertarian media group Freedom Press editor Rob Ray said, “Its core tacit assumption, that withholding information is itself suspicious enough to warrant invasive legal impositions, paints key parts of the work of the Fourth Estate as beyond bounds. In any free democracy worth the name, the ability of the press to act without the cosh of constant security service surveillance must be protected.

Snowden further re-tweeted a post from 2015 in the Guardian, that showed how GCHQ used bulk surveillance of electronic communications of citizens to monitor emails of some of the biggest media organisations in the US and UK. This was part of the documents he leaked from his time at NSA. The media organisations targeted for surveillance included the BBC, Reuters, Le Monde, the Guardian, NBC, the New York Times, the Sun, and the Washington Post. Under section 106 of the bill, bulk interception warrants by GCHQ would allow access to all communications of journalists, including metadata and activity records.

The Bill includes a two-stage approvals process which needs the home secretary to provide initial clearance for intercepting warrants which is then approved by a senior judge with the necessary security clearance.

If journalism is to be the upholder of truth in a post-truth society, and is expected to expose not only corruption, like the Panama Papers, government abuse of power, like mass surveillance and bring to light stories that we need to act on, it is paramount that journalists are afforded the freedom to work independently, away from government snooping. A free press is the mark of a free society. The power of the press in any country is determined by the freedom it is afforded to criticise that government’s action without interference from the state. Anything less, and we are no longer living in a democracy.  

Jack Cummings (22), a student of Journalism at University of Westminster, said, “What I find intimidating in particular is the idea that bill will progress from national security and into our everyday lives. It’s only one step away from weighing up job interview candidates based on their internet history — and that’s a scary concept.”

The petition for the re-appeal of the Bill, despite reaching 154,657 signatures, was not scheduled for debate by the Petitions Committee. The Home Office statement said that “at a time of heightened security threat”, it was “essential our law enforcement, security and intelligence services have the powers they need to keep people safe”, ensuring the powers of authorities were “fit for the digital age.”