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Anti-terror legislation risks encroaching on liberty

BySam Taylor

Jan 27, 2016

At Heathrow in 2013, Guardian journalist David Miranda was detained for carrying classified GCHQ files obtained from U.S. whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Miranda’s detention catalysed the debate around interferences with press freedoms and wider civil liberties, and whether national security is a sufficient justification for such infringements.

Despite the fact Miranda’s detention was ruled lawful by The Court of Appeal of January 19th, press outlets have hailed the Court’s assertion that Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act (2000) does not include safeguards sufficient for journalists possessing information sensitive to public interests. Schedule 7 allows UK police to examine and search passengers at international ports, airports and rail terminals. The Court has asked Parliament to redress Schedule 7, which in Miranda’s case clashed with Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights and the right to freedom of expression.

Anti-terror legislation has long been at odds with various conceptions of civil liberty, such as the press’ immunity from censorship.

Sticking with the issue of press freedom, the Miranda case illustrates multiple dimensions at play. A conflation of possessing sensitive information with threatening British security interests is clear, as the files seized by the UK border forces were plainly connected with journalism rather than terrorism. The files themselves were so heavily encrypted that Miranda himself was unable to open them. Effectively painted as a legitimate terror suspect, Miranda’s detention presents too broad an idea of what ‘terrorism’ seems to constitute.

This is a main element of the issue. Even if one were to agree that the files acquired by Miranda could represent a threat to British security interests, detention grounded in anti-terror legislation is an arbitrary use of the legislation’s content that negatively labels Miranda and jeopardises the liberty of the free press. As far as I am aware, possessing leaked GCHQ information is not an act of terrorism, whilst it would seem leaked information that could harm national interests can be boiled down to pretty much anything. Proponents of such a position are in murky water.

Additionally, it is easy to see why many commentators believe the distribution of Snowden’s files in the public domain acts as a civil liberty in itself. As cliché as it may sound, civil society is at liberty to scrutinise the operations of a government it holds accountable, and the release of files to which the government is responsible aids this process. A free press arguably functions to create a more informed society and a more responsive government, and this is why the debate over press freedom and national security should always be rigged towards the former. It is the freedoms we possess as a society, not our national security, which constitutes our social fibre.

Better legislation must be in place to discriminate between what journalistic and terror-based activity each constitute. The core of the issue is, ultimately, a more adept distinction between Miranda’s attempt to inform the public and threaten the public’s security. Even if sensitive information like the files carried by Miranda did represent a genuine security threat, a reasonable delineation of how and why legislation like Schedule 7 is used constitutes a liberty that civil society maintains a right to. Infringement upon the civil liberties of one individual or organisation infringes upon the liberties we all enjoy as a wider society. Uninformed anti-terror legislation encroaching upon the freedom of Miranda and the wider press should not act as a precedent, but rather a lesson for a better addressing of the balance between liberty and security.   

Image credit: Steve Haslam

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