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UK’s Counter-terrorism bill threatens freedom of expression

The UK’s Counter-Terrorism and Border Security bill will have its second reading in the House of Lords on 9 October 2018. Serious concern has been raised over the bill’s infringement on fundamental freedom of expression. Index on Censorship, RSF and other human rights organisations are campaigning to highlight the threat that the bill poses to freedom of expression, notably its potential to discourage the primary source research that is fundamental to the work of investigative journalists and academics.

What does the bill mean for freedoms?

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill 2017-2019 has already passed through the three reading stages in the House of Commons and is now at its second reading in the House of Lords. In order for the bill to be passed, it will need to pass through a further 4 stages before it ascends to become implemented as policy. If it is drafted in as law, the bill stands not only to threaten press freedoms and discourage investigative journalism, but also freedom of expression in the UK as a whole. RSF currently lists the UK as 40th on its Global Press Freedom Index.

RSF highlight seven clauses, 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 13 and 21, that constitute,

“unlawful, unnecessary, and disproportionate infringement of the fundamental right to freedom of expression.”

Clause 3 of the bill ‘Obtaining or viewing material over the internet’ will criminalise the viewing of,

“information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”

This clause would make it a crime to view information considered useful for terrorism, even if the viewer has no terrorist intent, this includes viewing the material over someone’s shoulder. This clause initially had a ‘three-click rule’, meaning that you could be omitted from being charged with a crime if you clicked on the material up to three times. However, the new amended version of the bill says that a “one-click rule” will come into effect. This ‘offence’ stands to carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

First review of the bill

As the first round of discussions took place in the House of Commons in June 2018, a number of officials raised concerns about the bill. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Professor Joe Cannataci, raised concerns about this clause, accusing the British government of straying towards “thought crime”.

Similarly, Max Hill QC, the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, said:

“There is a risk that the mesh of the net is far too fine and catch far too many people…I find a prison sentence of 15 years difficult to countenance when nothing is to be done with the material, it is not passed to a third party, and it is not being collected for a terrorist purpose.”

In spite of these concerns the bill passed through the Commons onto the Lords, where it is now in its second stage of review.

European Opinion

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have also expressed concerns on the draft bill and the effect it stands to have on freedoms. OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, addressed the UK authorities in a letter conveying his concerns. In the letter he said,

“I fully understand the importance and the need for governments to counter terrorism and terrorist propaganda through security legislation. However, it is necessary that any new security norms will not hinder or undermine the work of journalists or impact the freedom of expression and access to information,”

The Index on Censorship has also expressed fears about the vagueness of the bill, notably Clause 1 that would criminalise expressing an opinion that would be considered “supportive” of a terrorist organisation. The danger in this clause is that it comes ‘close to criminalising opinion’ and would face a sentence of up to 10 years.

Overall, the potential shutdown on freedom of expression brought about by this bill could have far-reaching implications, putting individual freedom of expression, press freedom and significantly, academic freedom in jeopardy. The clauses in the bill stand to threaten the integrity of research that involves looking at primary sources, such as the work carried out by investigative journalists and academics.

Valerie Peay, Director of the International Observatory of Human Rights

“calls on all policy makers to use their common sense and reject draconian law and redraft legislation that does not criminalise the work of journalists, academics and others, and moreover to not infringe on the basic and indispensable individual rights of freedom of expression.”

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