Questioning of journalist at UK airport highlights increasing overreach of border forces

The police at London’s Luton airport worked through a list of questions. Did Broomfield consider his reporting to be objective? Did he include multiple sources in his work? How did he get paid? What was his opinion about beheadings, and did he ever send anybody a photo of a beheading? “Not answering the questions is a criminal offence, so I complied,” British journalist Matt Broomfield said about the questioning he was subject to in July. His laptop and phone were confiscated and he didn’t receive them back.

The questions indicated that Broomfield was a person of interest because of his journalistic work in Syria between 2018 and 2021. Besides reporting for media like VICE, the Independent and the New Statesman, he founded the Rojava Information Center, a news agency dedicated to improving the quality of reporting on the autonomously administered regions in the northeast of Syria (often referred to as Rojava) by making sources available and by working as fixers and translators for visiting journalists. But Broomfield said he wasn’t entirely certain about why was questioned: “They said they were doing a mopping-up operation, but didn’t give any details.”

It wasn’t the first time Broomfield, who is currently based in Belgrade, Serbia, had been questioned at an airport. In 2021 he was detained in Greece because, as he learned after being detained, he was banned from travelling to Schengen territory. He was eventually put on a plane to London, where he was again questioned. Broomfield said:

“After that, I have travelled to London several times without problems. You know, if you spend three years in Rojava, you can expect police wanting to talk to you. But now I needed to answer their questions again?”

After confiscating his equipment, the police asked if he had any confidential sources and material on his phone and laptop. Broomfield said no and explained that legally he doesn’t have to give police his password (police can only request your phone password if they have a warrant, something that many might be unaware of). Broomfield has since wondered what would have happened if he had said yes.

“What worries me is that the police ability to impound journalists’ tech reduces sources’ ability to trust journalists,” he said.

In 2019 Index investigated how border officials are increasingly demanding access to individuals’ social media accounts around the world. This is ushering in a frightening new era where people are worried that their words, their criticism and taking part in a protest will end in a travel ban and are, as Broomfield says, deeply concerned about their own sources.

Fiona O’Brien, the UK Bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, is also worried. In an interview with Index, she said: “We recognise the importance of national security and nobody says journalists are above the law, but press freedom is at stake here. Journalists have the right to work freely and without fear of the confidentiality of their sources.”

She said the police’s actions seem to be an overreach of the use of the law: “They have a duty to protect the public but their powers to do so should be used exceptionally.”

Recent statistics show that 2,498 people were subject to the use of schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, but it remains unclear how many of them were journalists. O’Brien said she heard of three cases so far this year.

“The lack of transparency is problematic. We don’t know why exactly people are questioned, we don’t know what happens to their equipment, and the police are not allowed to search confidential information on journalists’ equipment but we don’t know how this works in practice. We have written to the counter-terrorism police to talk about this, but so far we received no response.”

What Broomfield himself is also curious about and can’t seem to find answers to is the extent Turkey is involved. The autonomous administration in Northeast-Syria is considered to be a ‘terrorist’ entity by Turkey, as it is founded on the ideology of the Kurdish political movement, of which the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is a part. While the PKK is not active in Syria, Turkish authorities have been calling on NATO members to crack down on all Kurdish activism they deem “terrorism”.

“I don’t know if Turkey shares lists of names with European authorities or if they just demand a firmer crack-down in general, but I do know that the UK and Turkey have shared security interests and the economic ties have strengthened, especially after Brexit,” said Broomfield.

He also points to the strong ties between Turkey and Germany, the latter being responsible for the Schengen ban he received and which is due to end (but may be renewed) in 2026. He is trying to find out more about the background of the ban and trying to get it reversed with the help of a lawyer in Germany. Broomfield said:

“This ban hampers my work much more than the questioning and the confiscation of my equipment. It would be good to be able to travel to key places in the Schengen zone to report on Kurds in Europe. I get invitations to speak at conferences in Europe but can’t accept them. The ban narrows my horizon.”

Did Broomfield expect to face problems because of his work in Syria?

“I’m aware that reporting there comes with risks, both in the short term on the ground and in the long term. But the work my colleagues and me have done there, supportive of what the autonomous administration tries to build but looking at it with a critical eye, is important and we need more of it. The situation I am now in limits my ability to use my liberty as a British citizen to draw attention to the plight of the Kurds. To me, all this speaks to the trend of increasing Turkish influence on Europe’s security policies.”

Both Reporters Without Borders and the National Union of Journalists are supporting Broomfield in efforts to get his equipment back and to get more clarity on the background of his detention and interrogation. The NUJ didn’t want to comment, but did share that Broomfield’s case follows the recent similar case of Ernest M., a foreign rights manager for the French publisher Editions La Fabrique, who was arrested by British police under terrorism legislation when he arrived in London for this year’s London Book Fair.

Meanwhile, Broomfield is applying to several funds for journalists to cover his legal expenses.