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Don’t turn tough sound-bites into repressive, chilling laws, NUJ tells May

30 September 2014

Broadcasting bans and a return to the Snoopers' Charter, set out in the Home Secretary's speech at Conservative Party conference, have been roundly condemned as anti-democratic and state interference in the press by the NUJ.

Theresa May set out her stall of a new range of powers to combat extremism, including extending electronic surveillance by the security forces and police and gagging orders on certain groups on TV and social media.

She said she will be "working with Ofcom to deal with extremist broadcasts" and would re-introduce the Communications Data Bill, which was "torpedoed by the Liberal Democrats".

The bill, which became known as the Snoopers' Charter, would have given the police and security services powers to order internet companies such as Facebook, BT, Virgin Media and Sky to collect and store the communications data relating to all of the traffic they deal with. This included details of internet usage, including websites visited, internet searches, private social media messages and even the online video games played.

In press briefings, it was suggested that the new laws, banning "extremists" from making public appearances, including on television, had echoes of the broadcast ban on members of Sinn Féin, under Margaret Thatcher, to deny them the "oxygen of publicity".

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:

"The proposals put forward by Theresa May represent a return to the failed policies of political censorship in the UK and Ireland. Those policies, opposed consistently by the NUJ, did nothing to advance the cause of peace in Northern Ireland and merely served to prevent journalists from calling organisations and individuals to account through informed, systematic analysis and reporting. The censorship also had a chilling effect on broadcasting and on investigative journalism.
"Banning groups, however repugnant their views are, is a dangerous road to travel. Tolerance, diversity of opinion and free debate are the hallmarks of a free society. There can be no place for the type of repressive regime envisaged by the Home Secretary. It also seems unworkable – how can these groups be banned from social media? There are laws in place which can deal with hate crimes and those who incite violence and law breaking.
"The NUJ has already made its view on the disastrous Communications Data Bill very clear. We said it was a major assault on civil liberties for all citizens and a threat to press freedom. For journalists it was a direct attack on the way they worked and would have severely undermined their ability to protect their sources, materials and whistleblowers.
"Law enforcement agencies would have been able to trawl that data and cross reference it with other data sources through a communications data search engine, revealing social connections and confidential communication between journalists and their sources.
"Talking tough to Conservative Party members might be perceived as the job of all Home Secretaries. But turning tough sound-bites into repressive laws will not be good for a free press and will not be good for democracy."

Tags: , surveillance, data communications bill, press freedom, conservative party, theresa may, censorship, snoopers' charter, northern ireland, government uk, ofcom, facebook, bt, virgin media, bskyb, sinn féin, investigative journalism, broadcasting, ban, social media, civil liberties, whistleblowers, police