10:01 GMT26 January 2021
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    Freedom of speech advocates have urged UK lawmakers to safeguard journalistic rights after a bill facilitating police access to journalists' private emails was submitted to Commons, with debates set to begin on Wednesday.

    The Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill will help UK authorities access data in overseas servers from foreign tech companies like Google, Facebook and others, in addition to increasing data exchanges with foreign governments.

    The law could become a catalyst for circumventing existing protections on data accessible to UK authorities, with many global news outlets and journalists relying on US-based email and social media services for everyday operations.

    The bill “paves the way for the Home Office to surrender up the content of our electronic communications to foreign governments” National Union of Journalists' general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said in a press release on Tuesday.

    "This Conservative government has repeatedly demonstrated its contempt for journalism and disregard for press freedom, relentlessly introducing new laws and powers that undermine and compromise the ability of journalists to carry out their work with integrity and in safety," Ms. Stanistreet said.

    "This government has sought to restrict existing freedom of information law, introduced draconian surveillance legislation, tried to make it easier to prosecute journalists by reforming the Official Secrets Act and now it’s pushing legislation that disregards the few legal protections there are for journalistic material and sources."

    "So let us be in no doubt – this government is orchestrating a deliberately hostile legal environment for all journalists," she added.

    Rebecca Vincent of Reporters Without Borders said: “The fact that this bill is incredibly technical and complex is perhaps why it has largely evaded public scrutiny for so long, but the implications are potentially very damaging to press freedom and broader human rights."

    “Against a backdrop of other recent moves that will serve to restrict press freedom in the UK, such as the counter-terrorism and border security bill, which will likely be adopted any day now, this is very worrying indeed. The bill merits intervention even at this late stage of debate.”

    Dominic Cooper, General Secretary of the Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIOJ) told Sputnik that his institute believes that "professional journalists and their publishers need much greater safeguards to protect media freedom and the confidentiality of journalists' sources from any law that seeks global open access by state and crime investigators". 

    "Without the necessary constitutional safeguards, checks and balances, it could become a free for all, for the plundering and sharing of journalistic data," Mr. Cooper said, adding that "those safeguards have to meet the standards of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act".

    Reporters Without Borders and seven other press freedom organisations such as Index on Censorship, Big Brother Watch and others signed an open letter condemning the new bill, stating that it could lead to "unprecedented and broad" powers granted to UK authorities, in addition to eroding "privacy, freedom of expression, and press freedom".

    But a Home Office spokesperson said that whilst "no one should be above the law", the UK government was listening to journalists concerns.

    “The tools available to our law enforcement must be fit for the online world in which we live. Ninety-nine per cent of data linked to child abuse is held overseas and the faster we get it the quicker we can stop abusers", the Home Office said in a statement, adding that the bill would “give police and prosecutors quicker and easier access to vital electronic data held outside the UK".

    “We have listened to concerns and made sure that journalists will be informed in advance of an application being made to the court," the spokesperson continued. "This will give them the opportunity to make representations to the judge at the time of the application."

    “No one should be above the law but we have recognised journalists’ concerns by tabling a range of amendments.”

    The Crime Overseas Production Orders Bill was sponsored by Conservative junior government minister Baroness Williams of Trafford and Home Office secretary Sajid Javid. The bill "received broad support" by the House of Lords, but was amended to "ensure sufficient parliamentary scrutiny" of future agreements on international cooperation, including cases where "the death penalty may be imposed", the report briefing claims.


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    new law, Freedom of Press, freedom of expression, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), United Kingdom
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