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Journalists & John Catt challenge UK domestic extremism database

25 July 2016

The European Court has agreed to hear the case of John Catt, the 91-year old war veteran whose activities have been recorded by police forces on their "domestic extremism database". This Strasbourg decision is the latest development in a seven-year legal battle during which senior British judges have been split as to whether the police are acting lawfully in maintaining the database - which is now known as the "National Special Branch Intelligence System".

In 2013 three Court of Appeal judges ruled unanimously that the police were acting unlawfully. However, in 2015 the Supreme Court ruled by a majority of 4-1 that whilst Catt’s right to privacy had been interfered with, that interference had been justified. 

The UK government now has until 14 September 2016 to explain to the European Court why it believes it is "in accordance with the law" and "necessary in a democratic society" to maintain detailed surveillance records about the lawful activities of Catt and, by extension, others on the database.

Whilst the European Court case is ongoing, police forces across the UK continue to monitor and gather intelligence about peaceful protestors, politicians and journalists.

In a case supported by the NUJ, the Metropolitan Police have now admitted they continue to retain intelligence about four journalists who are NUJ members: Jason Parkinson, David Hoffman, Mark Thomas and Jess Hurd. However, the police have now refused to disclose to those journalists their up to date police intelligence records. They claim to have destroyed records they once held about journalist Jules Mattsson who took legal action against the police after he was falsely imprisoned whilst photographing a public event in 2010. 

Each of the journalists specialises in uncovering police, state and corporate misconduct and all have successfully taken legal action against the police for, amongst other things, their false imprisonment and interference with their journalistic activities by police officers. The NUJ is challenging the police refusal to provide copies of the journalists’ current police files and the ongoing retention of their records and awaits the Met police reply.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:

"During our campaign to amend the Investigatory Powers Bill we have been told that the surveillance of journalists and trade unionists in the UK is a thing of the past. This is patently not the case and this case is a clear reason why we must continue to challenge the illegitimate actions of the secret state. The current draft legislation falls short of vital protections we all need for a free society and democracy."

Shamik Dutta, Bhatt Murphy lawyer acting for the NUJ and John Catt, said:

"John Catt looks forward to the European Court making its decision as a matter of urgency. In the meantime, parliament must recognise - and address - the chilling effect unwarranted surveillance is having on freedom to protest and investigative journalism in the UK."

Jason Parkinson said:

"We report from the street, we expose wrongdoing, ask questions that challenge the state and we document events to keep the public informed of the facts. That has us labelled domestic extremists and put under surveillance. If the state feels the need to monitor politicians, protestors and journalists, fearing anyone that dares to challenge their narrative, then you no longer live in a democracy."

David Hoffman said:

"The activities of police officers conducting the surveillance are intimidating and restrict our ability to carry out our work. Their overt surveillance makes potential contacts fearful of communicating with us. Photographs of us are shown at briefings and distributed to officers working in public order situations. This damages our credibility with the working police officers. It leads to restrictions on access and attracts attention such as stops that take up our time and prevent us from working. It has a chilling effect on other journalists who might otherwise choose to cover social issues and protests. It leads to unchecked and incorrect information being passed to working police officers. Such information can be detrimental to our professional standing and reduce our ability to cover matters of legitimate journalistic interest. It reduces our ability to work in a positive and co-operative manner alongside the police."

John Catt said:

"Denied justice in Britain, I am now taking my fight to Europe in the hope that if successful, the case will set a benchmark in regulating what information the state is legally entitled to collect and retain about lawful protestors, and where unlawfully retained, it should be destroyed. I believe that this is a case about the democratic right to protest free from fear of unwarranted police surveillance, retention of data and endlessly being shadowed. There is a pressing need for this matter to be determined quickly, once and for all in the interests of freedom and democracy."

The NUJ has welcomed the parliamentary human rights report published on Friday 22 July, calling on the government to address the lack of any clear definition of extremism in their counter-extremism strategy. The committee has stated that clarity of definition is "essential".

The currently government’s definition of extremism is "the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs".

The Human Rights Act helps us hold power to account. We must defend it - Jason N Parkinson

Protester, 91, goes to European court over secret police files - The Guardian 25 July 2016 

Tags: , police, surveillance, investigatory powers bill, legal challenge, home office, human rights, parliament uk, snoopers' charter, protests, domestic extremist, extremism, legal action, european court of human rights