In a disturbing ruling for democracy, a lower court in United Kingdom announced today that the detainment of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda was lawful under the Terrorism Act, despite the fact that the UK government knew Miranda never was a terrorist. This disgraceful opinion equates acts of journalism with terrorism and puts the UK on par with some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Miranda has vowed to appeal the ruling.
Glenn Greenwald has much more on what this means for press freedom, but I’d like to expand on one particular point:
Over the past several years, the US State Department has publicly criticized several governments for using overly-broad terrorism laws against journalists and has even claimed its their policy to oppose “misus[ing] terrorism laws to prosecute and imprison journalists.” As we pointed out a couple months ago, they have criticized Turkey, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Burundi all within the past year.
Just last week, the State Department harshly criticized Egypt for detaining over twenty Al-Jazeera journalists and charging them under the regime’s terrorism statute. A State Department spokesman said, Egypt’s "targeting of journalists and others on spurious claims are wrong and demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms.” She continued: "any journalist, regardless of affiliation, must not be targets of violence, intimidation or politicized legal action. They must be protected and permitted to freely do their jobs in Egypt."
Will the US State Department condemn very similar behavior by one of its closest allies, the United Kingdom? Sadly, in November when the UK first made its argument in court, the State Department refused to comment when asked about its stance by the Guardian's Paul Lewis. Now that a court has ruled in the UK’s government favor, it’s time for the State Department to speak out.
With the ruling, the UK government has vastly widened the definition of terrorism to include ensnare people who have not committed violence, who have no intention to commit violence, and who aren’t even associated with people who intend to commit violence. The lower court essentially agreed with the government’s warped definition it put forth in court documents in November:
"Additionally the disclosure, or threat of disclosure, is designed to influence a government and is made for the purpose of promoting a political or ideological cause. This therefore falls within the definition of terrorism..."
Under the UK government’s logic, several Guardian reporters and editors could also be guilty of engaging in “terrorism”, and as well as New York Times or Pro Publica journalists who have received the same news-worthy documents for publication. In fact, if publishing or threatening to publish information for the purpose “promoting a political or ideological cause” is "terrorism," than the UK government can lock up every major newspaper editorial board that dares write any opinion that strays from the official government line.
The UK already has draconian measures in place that prevents newspapers from reporting freely on government. Newspapers are under constant fear of being censored under the Official Secrets Act, the Guardian was forced to destroy harddrives containing the Snowden files last year, and they are reportedly under active criminal investigation as well.
But this ruling is more troubling than all of it, and quite seriously threatens democracy. If journalism can be equated with terrorism in the court of law, any press freedom that is left in the UK will quickly disappear.
Note: Glenn Greewald is a member of Freedom of the Press Foundation's board of directors.