In what defenders of press freedoms have called a "serious blow" to "public interest journalism," a UK court has determined, it was not unlawful for British security agents to invoke a terrorism statute in order to seize and hold someone thought to be involved with a journalistic enterprise.
Ruling on the case of David Miranda, a Brazilian national and partner to well-known journalist Glenn Greenwald who was held by UK officials while passing through Heathrow Airport last summer, the lower court decision (pdf) said that even though the police's actions were “an indirect interference with press freedom,” the detention was permissible as it was in the service of "very pressing" national security concerns.
As exposed in court documents related to the case, the UK government was operating under a request from the U.S. government to hold Miranda, who was on a stop-over in London from Berlin, Germany on his way back to Brazil. Given his relationship with Greenwald, it was supposed that he was carrying materials leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and acting as courier between Greenwald and his colleague Laura Poitras who lives in Berlin. Invoking the Terrorism Act of 2000, police used a statute called Schedule 7, which allows for authorities to hold "terrorism" suspects for up to nine hours without contact or a lawyer.
Greenwald was quick to slam the ruling in a post at The Intercept, his new media outlet, where he argued the court has set a terrible precedent by explicitly equating 'journalism with terrorism':
The UK Government expressly argued that the release of the Snowden documents (which the free world calls “award-winning journalism“) is actually tantamount to “terrorism”, the same theory now being used by the Egyptian military regime to prosecute Al Jazeera journalists as terrorists. Congratulations to the UK government on the illustrious company it is once again keeping. British officials have also repeatedly threatened criminal prosecution of everyone involved in this reporting, including Guardian journalists and editors.
Equating journalism with terrorism has a long and storied tradition. Indeed, as Jonathan Schwarz has documented, the U.S. Government has frequently denounced nations for doing exactly this. Just last April, Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine dramatically informed the public that many repressive, terrible nations actually “misuse terrorism laws to prosecute and imprison journalists.” When visiting Ethiopia in 2012, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns publicly disclosed that in meetings with that nation’s officials, the United States “express[ed] our concern that the application of anti-terrorism laws can sometimes undermine freedom of expression and independent media.” The same year, the State Department reported that Burundi was prosecuting a journalist under terrorism laws.
Greenwald was joined in his denunciation of the verdict by advocates of journalism and free speech all over the world.
"Today’s judgment represents a serious attack on press freedom and the protection of journalists’ sources. That can only limit the public’s right to know what is done in its name, and is a real threat to democracy," said Michelle Stanistreet of the National Union of Journalists in the UK. "We believe there must be an urgent public inquiry into the use of anti-terrorism legislation as a battering ram against press freedom."
And Gus Hosein from Privacy International, which has lobbied against the spying of both the NSA and GCHQ, said use of Schedule 7 to target people like Miranda is a clear abuse of its intention.
In this case, he said, the British government "used it to seize the devices of journalists to intimidate the reporting of mass and unlawful surveillance practices of the British government. To equate journalism with espionage, as the government has, is truly shameful."
"Today," Hosein continued, "the court endorsed the practice of arbitrary use of power — that anyone passing through the border, Briton or not, can be subjected to a search and their devices seized for whatever purpose the government sees fit."
Responding to the ruling himself, Miranda vowed to appeal and said the decision was more damaging to the UK's reputation than his own:
I will appeal this ruling, and keep appealing until the end; not because I care about what the British government calls me, but because the values of press freedom that are at stake are too important to do anything but fight until the end.
I’m of course not happy that a court has formally said that I was a legitimate terrorism suspect, but the days of the British Empire are long over, and this ruling will have no effect outside of the borders of this country.
I’m convinced they’ve hurt their own country far more than me with this ruling, as it emphasizes what the world already knows - the UK has contempt for basic press freedoms.