British police have used anti-terrorism laws to seize the laptop of a young journalist at Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship evening news programme.
According to an exclusive report by The Independent, a judge granted British police an order that required the BBC and Secunder Kermani, who joined Newsnight earlier this year, to surrender the laptop.
A BBC spokesman said, “Police obtained an order under the Terrorism Act requiring the BBC to hand over communication between a Newsnight journalist and a man in Syria who had publicly identified himself as an IS member. The man had featured in Newsnight reports and was not a confidential source.”
The action has led to alarm at the BBC. Newsnight editor Ian Katz said: “While we would not seek to obstruct any police investigation we are concerned that the use of the Terrorism Act to obtain communication between journalists and sources will make it very difficult for reporters to cover this issue of critical public interest.”
Another source at the public broadcaster told The Independent that “it makes it very difficult to do proper reporting in this territory when the cops can come in and get orders for material as easily as they can.”
Free speech campaigners have also signalled their dismay at the ability of British police to seize private communications between journalists and their sources.
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, which campaigns for writers’ freedom of expression, warned of “hysteria” around terrorism and said, “If journalists go near something to do with terrorism the police can use the Terrorism Act to go after their sources.”
Prior to the seizing of his laptop, Secunder Kermani had built a reputation for obtaining interviews with Western-born jihadis. These included Jake Bilardi, a Melbourne teenager, prior to his death in a suicide attack in Iraq which killed 17. He also interviewed “Awlaki,” a British-Pakistani fighter for the Islamic State.
It isn’t the first time that British authorities have used national security as a justification to interfere with journalists. In July 2013, The Guardian destroyed hard drives containing leaked material from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, following a threat of legal action by the British Government.
A few months later, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the NSA story. was detained by British police under the Terrorism Act. A case set to go before the UK Court of Appeals next month will challenge a ruling that he was lawfully detained.
In other news, the UK government is facing criticism for its statements on online data encryption. Baroness Joanna Shields, the UK Minister for Internet Safety and Security, said that companies should be able to “access communications on their network when presented with a warrant,” but also said “this is not about creating back doors.”
Shields continued: “The Government do not advocate or require the provision of a back-door key or support arbitrarily weakening the security of internet applications and services in such a way. Such tools threaten the integrity of the internet itself.”
Edward Snowden, who recently joined Twitter, said Shields’ comments were a contradiction: “A backdoor that requires a warrant is still a backdoor.”