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Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill risks criminalising inquisitive minds

24th Aug 2018

Elham Asaad Buaras

According to a report by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) academics, journalists and anyone with an inquisitive mind would be at risk of lengthy prison sentences under proposed UK Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill.

The report published on August 10, raises fears that the bill fails to comply with human rights. The JCHR singled out Clause 3 of the bill that would criminalise viewing terrorist material online multiple times, insisting the bill risks violating Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which covers the right to receive information and could include innocent people who are viewing material without any criminal intent.

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 August 6, 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.

Civil and human rights group, 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.

Labour MP Harriet Harman who chairs the JCHR, said: “This bill goes too far and will be tabling amendments in both the Commons and the Lords.”

Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime, Ben Wallace, hit back accusing the committee of drawing “misplaced and wrong” conclusions that “couldn’t be more out of touch with the very real threat to life we all now face.”

Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, 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.”

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