UK media organizations have warned that if a government bill authorizing police to seize journalists’ notebooks, photos and digital files is passed Monday, it could seriously endanger press freedom in the country.
Currently, requests for reporters’ notebooks and files must be made in open court, and representatives of news organizations are allowed to be present in the courtroom. However, if Clause 47 in Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin‘s deregulation bill is passed February 3, secret hearings could authorize the seizure of journalists’ files.
Under the bill, the police will be basically given carte blanche to access journalists’ information without their consent.
Although the rules stating whether police can have access to material or not will remain unaltered, without media groups present at hearings judges could be more easily persuaded to authorize police seizures of journalistic material, The Guardian reported.
The voice of Britain’s media, the Newspaper Society, which represents 1,100 newspapers, 1,600 websites and other print, digital and broadcast channels, has protested against the controversial bill’s provisions.
“Reporters are put at risk, whether reporting riot or investigating wrongdoing, if perceived to be ready sources of information for the police and media organizations too vulnerable to police demands for journalistic material,” the society warned in a statement.
The Newspaper Society said it strongly opposes Clause 47 of the Deregulation Bill because “it would take away important statutory safeguards for journalistic material against unlawful seizure by the police, through repeal of important provisions in the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act 1984. The Bill would remove the mandatory statutory procedural safeguards in PACE itself, which allow the media to have advance notice of police applications for production of journalistic material by the media and guarantee inter partes hearings.”
The society has pointed out that the deregulation bill’s provisions could enable the current statutory safeguards to be “removed completely, reduced, weakened or otherwise radically altered at any later time, without prior consultation of the media affected nor detailed parliamentary scrutiny of the effect.”
“We are alarmed that the removal of such important statutory protections of freedom of expression is put forward as a deregulatory measure,” the society’s statement concluded.
However, a Cabinet Office spokesman told The Guardian that every measure in the deregulation bill was only meant to “remove unnecessary bureaucracy.”
“Clause 47 would bring the Police and Criminal Evidence Act into line with other legislation in this area and would allow the criminal procedure rules committee to make procedure rules that are consistent and fair,” he said.
In November, the Metropolitan Police ordered journalists to hand over confidential information in secret courts. The case involved a former SAS officer accused of leaking information to a Sky News defense correspondent. Sky News has been ordered by the secret court to hand over emails and any other information passed between the soldier and the journalist. The High Court ruled that seeking production orders in closed courts was unlawful, and the charges against the SAS man and a second soldier were later dropped. However, London’s Metropolitan Police is seeking to overturn the High Court’s decision so they will be allowed to use secret courts to force journalists to hand over documents in future, the Press Gazette reported.