Opinion

New laws could make it easier to arrest journalists. Here’s why that matters

The House of Lords has the chance to defend press freedom, amid a growing wave of arrests of journalists, writes lawyer Tyrone Steele

press freedom, extinction rebellion

Police during an Extinction Rebellion protest in April 2022. Image: Extinction Rebellion

​​A bridge on the M25 seems an unlikely place to reignite the debate on press freedom in the UK. Yet last November, it was here that Charlotte Lynch, a journalist from LBC, was arrested by Hertfordshire Police on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance for reporting on the Just Stop Oil protests. Ignoring the obvious signs of her job, including her press card, she was detained for five hours at a police station along with two other journalists. Their equipment – another clear indication of their line of work – was seized.

Far from an isolated incident, the arrests of journalists have taken place in tandem with the rise in protests in recent years. Back in August, Peter Macdiarmaid was also detained and taken in a police van to Redhill police station. The award-winning reporter, who has covered several historic and monumental events from the Arab Spring to the London riots, remarked: “It’s the first time I’ve been in cuffs in the 35 years I have covered protests”. 

Former Daily Mirror correspondent Matthew Dresch faced a similar fate in Bristol the previous year, sharing footage of what he claimed was assault by police officers as he reported on protests in the city, despite the fact that he was just “respectfully observing what was happening”.  

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Every time, a predictable chorus of concerns follows. The public rightly express outrage, countered by defensiveness and hollow affirmations from police and the government about the importance of a free press to UK democracy. But nothing changes. Rather than lessons being learnt, the government is committed to doubling-down on restrictions on protest, putting increasingly broad powers in the hands of the police which would make the arrest of journalists and other members of the press even easier.

The Public Order Bill – a grim sequel to last year’s oppressive Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act  – would arm the police with a slew of new powers. The new offences of “locking on”, being “equipped” to lock on, and expanded stop-and-search powers are so broad they have the potential to capture an enormous range of ordinary peaceful behaviour. Overnight, simple acts, such as walking arm-in-arm down the street, taking a bike lock to work, or tying up your dog outside a café, could place the public at risk of arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment.

Protest Banning Orders, which human rights organisations have pointed out are not dissimilar to measures on the statute books in Russia and Belarus, are especially problematic. They could be applied to people with the most tangential connection to a protest, from shopkeepers who sell protesters glue, soup, or cake, to those who post encouraging messages on social media. In practice, this could mean severe restrictions on individuals’ liberty, including who you meet with and where, as well as how you use the internet. Prison could await anybody who falls foul of such orders.

In light of the indiscriminate way in which the police have treated journalists covering protests, there is no doubt that many will come face to face with these new laws as collateral. A notepad, microphone, camera, and other tools of the trade would represent a risk of arrest and detention. The sad consequence may well be to put journalists off from an increasingly dangerous profession, leaving coverage of important issues lacking and potential abuses flying under the radar.  

On Tuesday, the House of Lords will consider the Bill, with several votes lined up to strip out many of these awful powers that would severely undermine protest rights and set the UK on a collision course with the European Court of Human Rights.

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However, there’s also a chance to secure an important win for journalists, legal observers, and members of the public. A new clause has been proposed, on a cross-party basis, to stop the police from using their powers with the goal of preventing anybody from observing or reporting a protest or police use of powers during protests. 

This clause would help make sure that those who are bravely working to cover live protests, as well as holding the police to account for the way they behave, benefit from the safety and security that they deserve.

For now, the government has kept its cards close to its chest as to which way they will direct their peers to vote. However, if they fail to back these vital protections, then Tuesday will see a further nail in the coffin for freedom of expression in the UK.

Tyrone Steele is the criminal justice lawyer at JUSTICE, the cross-party law reform and human rights organisation.

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