Care about press freedom? Act now!

IN HOLLYWOOD blockbusters, and in too many despotic countries around the world, an attack on the free press means journalists dragged from their beds to prison, presses smashed and television stations shut down.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

Undermining our ability to investigate and express freely what we find take on more subtle forms in Britain's liberal democracy, and three pieces of legislation that will considered by the Westminster parliament this week are in many respects more deadly, and certainly more insidious than bully-boy secret policemen and arbitrary edicts shutting down newspapers.

First: the Investigatory Powers Bill will allow the police to track exactly who a journalist has met with, spoken to or exchanged electronic communications with. The Police will be able to do this for their own purposes or when acting on behalf of other public authorities. They will be able to do this in secret - so a journalist will not know when their communication data has been seized and there will be no opportunity to go before a judge, to oppose an application and protect a source. Despite concessions secured by the NUJ and others, the safeguards for journalists in the Bill don't go far enough - inevitably this law will be misused, as its predecessor has been on numerous occasions.

Second, a clause in the Digital Economy Bill (specifically Chapter 1 of Part V Clause 33 and clause 32 (4)) will make the passing on of information the has not been authorised for sharing a criminal offence. What journalist has not been given internal documents by a whistleblower to provide the basis for a story about corruption, bad employment practices or wasted public money? In future, both journalist and whistleblower will risk criminal prosecution.

And finally there is the Police and Crime Bill. An amendment to this Bill (231A) is intended to make possible the prosecution of stalkers. But its implications for journalism - particularly photography - are chilling.

It would criminalise taking multiple images of a person without their permission. There is a public interest defence but, as the amendment is currently framed, an individual photographer might potentially be arrested and thrown in the cells before they were given a chance to make the case that their work was legitimate. If the subject of the photography was wealthy and powerful, a photographer could find themselves making their case from behind bars, in the face of expensive lawyers trying to ensure that they remained incarcerated.

The NUJ, other groups and our parliamentary allies, have been working on these Bills for some months and have obtained some significant concessions. None go far enough however for a free press to be assured.

Unless legislators hear our protests, unless they can see that there is a constituency that will defend press freedoms, then in the coming years these new laws will be used to keep secret corruption, intimidate those who would shine light into dark places and lock up those who would expose the misdeeds of those in power.

There is a full briefing on the NUJ's website. I urge you now, if you care about press freedom, and the ability of journalists to do their work, email your MP now, whatever party they represent, and call on them to speak up for your interests and the interests of all journalists.