November 28, 2013

Joint letter to Home Affairs Select Committee highlighting concerns over freedom of the press

To: Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee
CC: All members of the Home Affairs Committee
Home Affairs Committee, House of Commons
7 Millbank, London SW1P 3JA
28 November 2013

Re: Concerning the review of The Guardian newspaper as part of the inquiry into anti-terrorism

Dear Mr Vaz,

I am writing to you on behalf of the international freedom of expression group, ARTICLE 19, and leading civil liberties groups and campaigners in the UK, in relation to the Committee's review of The Guardian newspaper as a part of the inquiry into anti-terrorism.

We are deeply concerned that the Committee's review of The Guardian could restrict media freedom in the UK, by discouraging future reporting on important matters of public interest. This includes future reporting concerning the sensitive area of national security.

We also believe that the Committee's review of The Guardian raises concerns about the human rights of all individuals to be able to access information about government activities, and to be able to use that information to engage in public debate.

We write to you to ask that you consider this an important opportunity to hear first-hand about the impact that pressure by the government and the security services has on the free press when dealing with issues related to national security. Frequently, around the world, national security is used to justify arbitrary censorship and to curtail freedom of expression and press freedom. The international community are listening to the vigorous debate currently taking place in the UK that has been sparked by The Guardian. The voice of the Committee will be heard and will have influence beyond UK borders.

We, therefore, urge that the Committee's review of The Guardian fully considers and takes into account international human rights standards, and in particular those that relate to the right to freedom of expression and media freedom.

International standards on freedom of expression clearly stipulate that national security arguments must never be used to justify preventing disclosures of illegalities or wrongdoing, no matter how embarrassing such disclosures may be to governments. A summary of the relevant standards is outlined for your consideration in the enclosed Annex (“International freedom of expression standards relating to The Guardian newspaper's reporting of the Snowden disclosures”).

In the present matter, The Guardian published information on large-scale internet and telephone surveillance programmes operated by the US Government with the assistance of the UK security services and a range of private sector internet and telephone companies. The publication of this information has facilitated a much-needed public debate about mass surveillance in a democracy. It also exposed the possible violation of the fundamental human rights of millions of people worldwide. We firmly believe that these matters fall within the public and political field which, according to the UN Human Rights Committee, necessitates special respect and requires the government to provide a particularly pressing justification for restrictions on freedom expression.

We observe that the UK government has so far failed to “specify the precise nature of the threat” relating to national security and has relied solely on a general statements referencing the concept of national security. General statements about the threat to national security do not meet established international standards on freedom of expression and media freedom, nor do they present a sufficiently justified pressing social need for such restrictions. The government has also failed to show that that there has been demonstrable harm to national security, and that this harm outweighs the public benefit derived from disclosures about mass surveillance and the potential violation of human rights.

We find that The Guardian's publishing of the Snowden disclosures relates not only to matters of great public importance, but is also directly concerned with reporting the human rights violations entailed in mass surveillance. As such, the most stringent journalistic protection is required.

We urge the Committee to uphold international standards on freedom of expression in the present review. We respectfully call on you to unequivocally dismiss all allegations that the publishing activities of The Guardian have breached national security. We strongly believe that any conclusion to the contrary would have a dangerous impact on human rights protection in the UK and would undermine the UK's international obligations.

We are further concerned that the Committee's review into The Guardian's activities further adds to an already unduly hostile environment for investigative journalism. We believe that sustained pressure is being applied to The Guardian by politicians and the authorities as a result of their reporting of the Snowden's revelations.

We would like to ask the Committee to be mindful that its approach to questioning The Guardian could bolster politically motivated pressure designed to curtail serious public interest journalism. It is for this reason that we ask you to defend and protect the right to freedom of expression and media freedom in the UK.

We would be very happy to further assist you in ensuring that the international standards are protected in the present review. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you need any further information.

Yours sincerely,

Thomas Hughes, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19
Caspar Bowden, Independent Privacy Researcher
Henry Porter, Journalist, The Guardian
Susan Bryant, Director, Rights Watch (UK)
Jo Glanville, Director, English PEN
Jim Killock, Executive Director, Open Rights Group
Dr Ian Brown, Associate Director, University of Oxford Cyber Security Centre and Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Internet Institute
Anthony Barnett, Founder, Open Democracy