Lords must redraft Investigatory Powers Bill, says Reporters Without Borders
Human rights groups including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have long decried the controversial Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB), otherwise known as the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, which would replace the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).
Drafted by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, the bill was submitted to parliament last November, and was passed by the House of Commons on 7 June. Today, the bill reaches ‘report’ stage at the House of Lords – the last real chance for substantive debate.
In its current form, the IPB is particularly menacing for press freedom. It contains provisions that would allow the police and intelligence agencies to intercept, gather, and store the communications data of tens of millions of people, including whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources.
‘Relevant public authorities’ would be permitted to obtain journalists’ communications data in order to identify anonymous sources – all the more alarming as prior notice would not be required for authorities to access journalists’ data or hack into their devices.
Investigative journalism depends directly on the safety, and often on the anonymity, of sources. Withdrawing safety and anonymity would serve as a death sentence for the kind of investigative journalism that aims to expose what some are bent on hiding.
Interception of the communications data of whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources – and in particular, the ability the authorities would have to locate their devices – would also threaten the physical safety of those working on sensitive issues who do not want to risk being identified.
RSF has joined widespread calls from the human rights community and international experts for the IPB to be rejected in its current form. It needs amendments that guarantee specific protection for journalists and their sources.
Interception and analysis of journalists’ communications data should continue to be measures of last resort, and should be done in a fully transparent manner.
There must be provisions for warning journalists when their data is to be intercepted, and the concept of ‘overriding public interest’ is too vague. The bill should define the extent of the judicial commissioner’s powers much more precisely.
So far, the only strong opposition to the bill in the House of Lords has come from Liberal Democrat peers. Labour peers have reportedly been instructed to abstain – as Labour MPs did when the bill passed the House of Commons with a staggering vote of 444 MPs in favour, and 69 against (with the latter being made up of votes from the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and the Green Party).
Abstaining, however, is not enough. The press freedom issues at stake are cause for alarm, and certainly transcend party politics. Parliament should vote against the IPB as it stands, and redraft with due consideration for the protection of whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources, in line with the UK’s human rights obligations.
Rebecca Vincent is the UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Vincent
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