Will the US condemn UK's attempt to use 'Terrorism' laws to suppress journalism?

The UK government has decided that journalism can be classed and pursued as "terrorism" in the courts. This is outrageous and dangerous in the extreme; it is incompatible with basic democracy.

Miranda and Greenwald. Image: Elza Fiúza / Agência Brasil via Wikimedia Commons

In a shocking court filing this week, the UK government accused journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda of “terrorism” for allegedly transporting leaked (and heavily encrypted) NSA documents from documentarian Laura Poitras in Germany to Greenwald in Brazil, on a journalistic mission paid for by the Guardian newspaper.

In a statement that should send chills down the spine of every reporter, the government made the unbelievable claim that merely publishing information that has nothing to do with violence still “falls within the definition of terrorism.”

"Additionally the disclosure, or threat of disclosure, is designed to influence a government and is made for the purpose of promoting a political or ideological cause. This therefore falls within the definition of terrorism..."

Think about the sheer breadth of that statement. Not only are several Guardian reporters and editors also guilty of engaging in “terrorism” under the UK government’s logic, but so are New York Times or Pro Publica journalists who have received the same news-worthy documents for publication. If publishing or threatening to publish information for the purpose “promoting a political or ideological cause” is "terrorism," than the UK government can lock up every major newspaper editorial board that dares write any opinion that strays from the official government line.

No matter one’s opinion on the NSA, the entire public should be disturbed by this attack on journalism. In fact, this is exactly the type of attack on press freedom the US State Department regularly condemns in authoritarian countries, and we call on them to do the same in this case.

For example, in January 2012, in response to Ethiopia jailing award-winning journalist Eskinder Nega, the State Department expressed “concern that the application of anti-terrorism laws can sometimes undermine freedom of expression and independent media.” Again in June State Department released a statement saying, “The Ethiopian government has used the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to jail journalists and opposition party members for peacefully exercising their freedoms of expression and association.”

The 2012 State Department human rights report on Turkey criticizes the country for imprisoning “scores of journalists…most charged under antiterror laws or for connections to an illegal organization.”

In April 2013, the State Department cited Burundi for imprisoning radio journalist Hassan Ruvakuki and three of his colleagues for “acts of terrorism.”

Just last month, in response to respected Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla being arrested under an anti-terror law for linking to a Youtube video, the State Department said, “We are concerned with the government of Morocco’s decision to charge Mr. Anouzla. We support freedom of expression and of the press, as we say all the time, universal rights that are an indispensable part of any society.”

As the Committee to Protect Journalists noted in their excellent report on the misuse of terror laws, “The number of journalists jailed worldwide hit 232 in 2012, 132 of whom were held on anti-terror or other national security charges. Both are records in the 22 years CPJ has documented imprisonments.”

Warping “terrorism” laws to suppress journalism is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes and deserves to be condemned by all. The Miranda case is a classic example of, as the State Department has put it, “misus[ing] terrorism laws to prosecute and imprison journalists.”

We call on the State Department to apply the same principle they’ve applied to these authoritarian regimes and condemn the UK for misusing its “terrorism” laws to suppress journalism and free expression.

Update - The Guardian's Paul Lewis asked the State Department to comment on the UK's use of "terrorism" laws to suppress journalism, in light of the State Department's previous statements highlighted in the above post. Here is the transcript of their full, unsatisfying response:

QUESTION: Yeah. So in the past, the State Department’s been very proactive in raising concerns when foreign countries have used terrorism legislation against journalists. And there was one such case over the weekend when the UK authorities revealed that when they stopped the partner of the journalist Glenn Greenwald, they did so because they believed he was behaving within the definition of terrorism. Would the State Department agree with that assessment?

MS. HARF: I’d refer you for any of those questions to the UK Government. I’m not going to speak for them.

QUESTION: If I could just pursue this for one second, because --

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- it would be more than just an academic point if American journalists, U.S. citizens, travel to the UK working on this NSA story and are either detained, arrested, or possibly charged. That could plausibly happen. If the State Department at this point raised concerns in the same ways it has done with other countries – Morocco, Turkey, Burundi – about this kind of practice, then it would diminish the likelihood that U.S. citizens would be treated in the same way.

MS. HARF: Well, again, I’d refer you to the UK Government. This is their matter to discuss. And I would also reiterate what I said to Said – every situation is different. I would caution from making too many – drawing too many links or comparisons between any specific situation. But again, I’m just not going to have any comment on this. I’d refer you to my colleagues in London.

Yes.

 

*Crossposted with thanks to Freedom of the Press Foundation

About the author

Trevor Timm is Executive Director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.