Assaulting Freedom to Protect Freedom: UK Government Gets Tough on Press

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Legislation aimed at preventing acts of terrorism is now being misused to intimidate reporters and the media they work for. In the UK, police authorities invoked Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to question for nine hours David Miranda, the partner of the Guardian columnist who gave voice to US whistle blower Edward Snowden and thus revealed the massive worldwide spying operations of the National Security Agency and its European siblings. At the end of Mr Miranda’s ordeal, police confiscated his laptop computer, memory sticks and other electronic devices. However, they failed to charge him with any offense.

The Terrorism Act was also used to force The Guardian newspaper to destroy computers and hard drives that contained information leaked by Mr Snowden. Even though the UK government was fully aware that copies of the files exist outside the country, it coerced the newspaper to subject the offending hardware to an angle grinder. This ghastly scene unfolded in the basement of the paper’s London office on Saturday, July 20, under the watchful eye of agents from Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

One cannot help but wonder what Home Secretary Theresa May thinks she is doing. It’s not the bidding of the US overlords. White House deputy press secretary John Earnest said he simply could not conceive of a situation that would see the American government force journalists to destroy computers and hard drives. Ever holier-than-thou, the White House spokesperson also said Mr Miranda’s detention at Heathrow Airport was not the product of US pressure.

“This ghastly scene unfolded in the basement of the paper’s London office on Saturday, July 20, under the watchful eye of agents from Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).”

Home Secretary May, who appears to never to have read George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, seems bent on repressing all sorts of freedoms and is now asserting the state’s control over its, mostly illegally obtained, secrets. Her misuse of the Terrorism Act beggars belief. By no stretch of the imagination can Mr Miranda be labelled a terrorist or be suspected of aiding and abetting terrorism.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the former Labour chancellor who helped write the Terrorism Act, said police had no right to detain Mr Miranda: “Schedule 7 allows for the questioning of somebody to determine whether he or she is preparing, instigating or commissioning terrorism. Clearly Mr Miranda is not such a person.”

Former Conservative Minister of Prisons Crispin Blunt warned that repeatedly misusing police powers brings the laws aimed at countering terrorism in disrepute. Home Secretary May was however not swayed and praised the police for their actions.

So much then for the oft-repeated mantras that the innocent have nothing to fear from the surveillance state or that one can never be too safe. Loyalty is all. Critics of policy merely comfort the enemy. The UK government is quite resourceful when it comes to finding excuses for its heavy-handed attitude.

For the GCHQ officials present at the ceremonial destruction of the laptops and hard drives in Guardian’s basement, things looked rather simple: “You’ve had your fun and now there is no need to write any more on the subject.” Judge, jury and executioner all rolled into two burly agents who are “just doing their job”.

This then is the new reality of contemporary Britain: Any respect for the freedom of expression has gone out the window. Journalists and their newspapers may be intimidated at will. Police powers are broad and go largely unchecked. Of course, all this is to protect society from those that try to undermine its hard-fought freedoms. The irony seems utterly lost on Mrs May and the government she is part of.

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