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UK watchdog warns that terrorism laws threaten journalists and sources

The UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation has said that the British government is drawing its interpretation of ‘terrorism’ too broadly, telling the BBC that the current definition “has begun to catch people it was never really intended to catch.”

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In a report delivered to Parliament on 22 July 2014, Anderson expressed particular concern about the possibility of journalists and bloggers having their activities made a subject of UK terrorism laws. The case of David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, who was stopped at Heathrow airport for 9 hours in August 2013 and had his electronic equipment seized by UK police brought this issue into sharp focus. The action of UK border police was upheld by the High Court in London on 19 February 2014.

In particular, Anderson points out that the UK does not require a link to acts of violence in the way it defines terrorism, only an intent to “influence the government.”

What the Miranda judgment reveals is that the publication (or threatened publication) of words may equally constitute terrorist action. It seems that the writing of a book, an article or a blog may therefore amount to terrorism if publication is “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”, “designed to influence the government” and liable to endanger life or create a serious risk to health or safety.

As Anderson argues, the UK’s statutory definition of terrorism is broad enough that a blogger arguing against the vaccination of children on political or religious grounds could theoretically fall within its bounds if their actions were judged to present a serious risk to public health. Under ancilliary laws, a large swath of speech acts – including the possession of articles for a purpose connected with publication, acts preparatory to publication or even the encouragement of such acts of publication – could also be construed as offences.

The degree of discretion this “over broad” definition allows executive authorities, concludes Anderson “leaves citizens in the dark and risks undermining the rule of law,” weakens public support for terrorism legislation generally and threatens to chill “legitimate enquiry and expression” by introducing the possibility of arbitrary prosecution.

David Miranda’s appeal is due to be heard by the Court of Appeal later this year.