Laws that protect our rights to read, research, debate and argue are drawn from our history.
Those rights are too easily rolled back by those who have forgotten why freedom of expression is of vital importance in a free and democratic country.
Independent reviewer of terrorism legislation Max Hill said in a recent speech: “Weakening human rights laws will not make us safer. Terrorists cannot take away our freedoms – and we must not do so ourselves.”
However, successive governments seek to do just this. We must protect the freedoms that should sit at the heart of our society. These are hard won – fought for over centuries when ordinary people were brutally repressed if they dared to stand up against authorities.
Just look back. In the 19th century, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of agricultural labourers, who argued for better working conditions including a minimum wage of 10 shillings per week, were sentenced to transportation to Australia. In the 14th century during the Peasants Revolt, many people who argued against unfair taxes were executed.
Currently under consideration in the House of Commons is a bill that threatens our right to read, research and discuss topics related to “proscribed” organisations. Although there may be good reason to ban organisations that advocate and carry out violent acts, it is quite another thing to ban people from finding out more about them. There are perfectly valid reasons why academics, researchers, journalists and others may want to look at material online about these organisations: to study how countries are economically damaged, to look at the tactics they use. All these are perfectly legitimate and could, of course, help those who are fighting terrorism.
Imagine a discussion about the impact of ETA, the Basque nationalist and separatist organisation, on the economy of Catalonia, where the professor maps bombing patterns across the region. This is a perfectly acceptable area of research but it could fall foul of a law penalising the collection of information, documents or records that is “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”.
Attempts have already been made to prosecute journalists under the existing law. London’s Met Police were in a more than six-month legal tussle with BBC Newsnight over interviews it did with former members of al-Muhajiroun, to try to understand their ideas of jihad. Richard Watson, the journalist involved, said at the time the law left him in a position of having to break it if he wanted to do this kind of story, and under threat of having to give up his sources. The current law is incredibly tough. These new proposals go even further, proposing that a penalty for a researcher or academic in these circumstances should be extended from 10 years to 15 years.
According to the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “The media plays a crucial role in informing the public about acts of terrorism and its capacity to operate should not be unduly restricted. Journalists should not be penalised for carrying out their legitimate activities.”
Another proposed legal change means a person who merely states something positive about a terrorist organisation is held responsible for something that another person who has overheard this might do at a later date. This is surely completely unworkable (for who is going to track down each person and find out what they overheard at an earlier date?) and how on earth could one prove that an action years later was actually as a result of overhearing a certain speech in the past?
While the government has a duty to protect the public, it also has a duty to protect our freedoms, and we should not give them up lightly.