UK counter-terror bill risks criminalising curiosity – watchdog

Committee says bill breaches human rights and could catch out ‘inquisitive minds’

Academics, journalists and those with “inquisitive and foolish minds” would be at risk of prosecution and prison sentences of up to 15 years under proposed counter-terrorism laws, a parliamentary human rights watchdog has said.

In a critical report, the joint committee on human rights (JCHR) raises serious concerns that the counter-terrorism and border security bill going through parliament does not comply with human rights.

The proposed legislation includes a clause that would criminalise viewing terrorist material online three or more times – a measure designed to extend current laws to cover streaming services such as YouTube.

But the committee says this could catch out a wide range of individuals who are viewing material without any criminal intent and risks violating article 10 of the European convention on human rights (ECHR), which covers the right to receive information.

The report says: “Whilst we recognise the need to adapt to new technologies and practices and the need to bridge the current gap between downloading and streaming material, there is a clear risk that this clause would catch academics, journalists and researchers, as well as those who view such material out of curiosity or foolishness without any intent to act upon the material in a criminal manner.”

On Monday, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Max Hill QC, called on the bill’s scrutiny committee to rewrite clause 3 so that it requires prosecutors to prove not just repeated viewing but also a terrorist purpose.

A defence of “reasonable excuse” is available but the JCHR says it is not clear what constitutes legitimate activity. Human rights groups that gave evidence to the committee warned of the chilling effect this lack of detail could have on academic or journalistic work.

Liberty told the JCHR: “While a defence of ‘reasonable excuse’ may prevent the successful prosecution of some journalists and academics, the chilling impact of these provisions remains. It is a brave reporter or researcher who will be undeterred by the prospect of a 15-year prison sentence.”

The committee says a separate proposal in the bill to criminalise the publication online of images that arouse suspicion that the person is a supporter or member of a proscribed organisation risk violating the right to freedom of expression.

The JCHR report also expresses concern that criminalising “expressions of support” for a proscribed organisation could stop debate around the use of banning powers. It states: “This bill strikes the wrong balance between security and liberty. We doubt whether, as currently drafted, the bill is compliant with the convention.”

The committee calls for a number of amendments to the legislation, which is undergoing scrutiny by MPs. It wants the government to clarify what expressions of support would be included in the offence.

The committee’s chair, Harriet Harman, said: “The government has got an important job to keep us safe from terrorism. But it must also safeguard human rights. The committee believes that this bill goes too far and will be tabling amendments in both the Commons and the Lords.”

The security minister, Ben Wallace, said: “This government does not agree with the committee’s conclusions in respect to human rights concerns. Its conclusions are misplaced and wrong.

“After the spate of terrorist attacks of last year and the deadly nerve agent attack this year, our intelligence services and police made the case for an update of existing legislation and some new powers to tackle the real and significant threat this country faces from terrorism and hostile states. We carefully considered the request and agreed to act so as to keep the public safe. The committee couldn’t be more out of touch with the very real threat to life we all now face.”

The home secretary, Sajid Javid, previously defended the proposed anti-terror laws in an article for the Guardian, insisting they were “not part of a sinister strategy to create an Orwellian state”, adding: “I totally reject any attempt to simplify today’s debate into one of security versus liberty.”


Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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