In light of recent terrorist attacks in Europe, governments have passed stricter counter-terrorism laws. However, the measures have been cynically exploited to criminalise government critics or silence critical media.
Turkey is an egregious case. This phenomenon started small where dismissive official rhetoric was aimed at small segments – such as Kurdish journalists – but over time expanded to extinguish whole newspapers or television networks that espoused critical viewpoints on government policy.
After the 2016 coup attempt, the trend intensified further. Hundreds of journalists have been arrested, dismissed from their jobs or sent to prison under state of emergency decrees and anti-terror laws passed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.
In one case, in July 2018, three pro-Kurdish newspapers and a television station were closed down by order of an emergency decree. Under the decree, all assets, rights and documents and the debt owed to the shuttered media institutions and associations were transferred to the treasury.
In many cases, critical media companies and dissenting journalists are charged under the anti-terror act for spreading “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. Many are charged for supporting peace with Kurdish separatists or just for expressing solidarity with others who face government reprisals. For example, in January 2018, five journalists — Ragıp Duran, Hüseyin Aykol, Mehmet Ali Çelebi, Ayşe Düzkan and writer Hüseyin Bektaş — were sent to prison for participating in a solidarity campaign for the shuttered pro-Kurdish Özgür Gündem newspaper.
But the trend toward the criminalisation of journalism that makes governments uncomfortable has spread beyond Turkey.
In 2015, five websites were blocked without judicial oversight in France. The administrative blocking came from the interior ministry on grounds that they “incite or defend terrorism”, under the Terrorism Act.
Even jokes can land journalists in trouble. French police searched the office of community station Radio Canut in Lyon in 2016 and seized the recording of a radio programme after two presenters were accused of “incitement to terrorism”. They had been talking about protests by police officers which had been taking place in France at the time. One of the presenters was put under judicial supervision and forbidden to host the radio programme until he appeared in court.
In Spain, comedian Facu Díaz was taken to court in 2015 for a satirical sketch from his online comedy show. The satirist faced charges under a law that criminalises the “glorification of terrorism” with punishment of up to two years in prison.
Governments are also using terror laws to spy on journalists. In 2014, police in the UK admitted they had used powers under terror legislation to obtain the phone records of Tom Newton Dunn, political editor of The Sun newspaper, to investigate the source of a leak in a political scandal. Police used powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which circumvents another law that requires police to have approval from a judge to get disclosure of journalistic material. In September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK’s mass surveillance regime violated human rights.
But the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill – a piece of legislation which critics argue will have a significant negative impact on media freedom in addition to other freedoms – continued its passage through Parliament, and has already been passed by the House of Commons. The final hearing in the House of Lords took place on 15 January 2019. It was sent back to the House for further consideration after some amendments.
The bill would criminalise publishing pictures or video clips of items such as clothes or flags in a way that raises “reasonable suspicion” that the person doing it is a member or supporter of a terrorist organisation. It would also criminalise watching online content that is likely to be helpful to a terrorist. No terrorist intent is required. The offence would carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
Parliament’s own human rights watchdog, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, has recommended that the former clause be withdrawn or amended because it “risks a huge swathe of publications being caught, including… journalistic articles”. The government has not accepted the recommendation.
“The bill would introduce wide-ranging new border security powers,” said Joy Hyvarinen, head of advocacy at Index on Censorship. “A journalist could be stopped without any suspicion of wrongdoing. It would be an offence not to answer questions or hand over materials, with no protection for confidential sources.”