Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill - Committee (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 29th October 2018.

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Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative 3:45 pm, 29th October 2018

It might be important, but I do not know the answer.

This exemption is needed because the vagueness of the offence, combined with the absence of an intent requirement, puts journalists and news organisations in danger of wrongful prosecution and legal harassment just for doing the job of reporting what is being said and engaging in debate. As drafted, a news organisation reporting on the activities of a terrorist organisation could be ensnared by the offence for relaying to the public the words of the members of the terrorist organisation. It is easy to imagine a situation where doing so is essential for the public’s understanding of a terrorist outrage, yet in doing so the news organisation will be expressing words that are supportive of that organisation and so fulfil the elements of this new offence.

The criminalisation of expressing beliefs,

“supportive of a proscribed organisation”,

is also problematic. It risks inhibiting journalists from explaining why a proscribed organisation appeals to its adherents or providing an objective assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. Let us say that a proscribed organisation has gained a foothold in a region and is being shielded and supported by the local population. How would a journalist explain why this has happened if they cannot allude to its strengths? Perhaps the proscribed organisation has improved healthcare in some way. Would pointing out that the group had effectively tapped into the legitimate grievances of a minority population count as a belief supportive of that group? The potential to censor, stunt and distort public discussion of terrorism, extremism and insurgencies is obvious.

I expect that my noble friend the Minister will seek to allay our concerns by pointing out that journalistic activities are not the target of this clause and that prosecutors would not press charges in such cases. However, these are serious, arrestable offences and it would be easy for law enforcement officials, who are not perfect, to get confused between journalistic activities and those that we seek to prohibit. This could result in a journalist being wrongly arrested or just harassed. How would it be if, at the very point that we are trying to convince a foreign leader such as President Erdoğan of Turkey to respect the rights and role of journalists, we in the UK accidentally arrest a journalist over a mix-up? Of course, law enforcement officials do make very serious mistakes. Your Lordships need to think only about the cases of Lord Bramall or Sir Cliff Richard. For this legislation to work as intended, we must have a carve-out for journalists.