UK journalists have launched a court challenge against secret government interception of reporters’ communications with their sources.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) have applied to the European Court of Human Rights asking them to rule if the UK government’s policies on the interception of communications are a breach of article 10 of the human rights act which enshrines the “right to free expression”.
The Bureau’s Christopher Hird said: “We understand why the government feels the need to have the power of interception. But our concern is that the existing regulatory regime to control the interception of communications data – such as phone calls and emails – by organisations such as GCHQ does not provide sufficient safeguards to ensure the protection of journalists’ sources, and as a result is a restriction on the operation of a free press.”
Information supplied by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden last year revealed that both the Government Communication Headquaters in Cheltenham (GCHQ) and the US National Security Agency routinely gather metadata relating to telephone communications and email traffic of millions of citizens, including those between journalists and potential whistleblowers
Gavin Miller QC, who is leading the case for the BIJ, said: “In the midst of the vast quantities of data being indiscriminately collected and analysed are large quantities of journalistic information. After all, journalism is a huge digital information industry in the UK.
“The days when journalists met their confidential sources in the snug bar and jotted down handwritten notes, or pocketed photocopied documents, are long gone. The tools of the trade are now computers and mobile devices.”
He added: “No one knows anything about what GCHQ does with the journalistic information it pulls in. This is because, startlingly, neither the legislation nor government guidance about its use says anything at all about this.”
Meanwhile trade publication Press Gazette has launched a “save our sources” initative against government monitoring of reporters communications after it was discovered that police had accessed the phone records of The Sun’s political editor Tom Newton Dunn through the Regulation of Investigory powers act (RIPA) rather than by obtaining a court order.
The campaign, which has been backed by the editors of The Sun and The Guardian as well as the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, has launched an online petition demanding the interception of communications commissioner take action to ensure RIPA powers are not used to indentify confidential sources.
While cases at the European court have been known to drag on for years Rachel Oldroyd, acting managing editor at the BIJ, told The Drum that their motion had been added to another privacy action already being considered by the court which should mean a quicker decision. Oldroyd said that if the action was successful it would mean the UK government would have to ensure that all journalistic communications were protected.