Classifying media and encryption as a threat is danger to press freedom

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
January 21, 2015

The U.K. prides itself on its commitment to free expression, but the latest revelations of surveillance of journalists and calls by Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron, to ban secure messaging belie the country's drift toward a more restrictive environment for the press. The revelations further underscore the threat surveillance by Western democracies poses to journalism, a threat that prompted the Committee to Protect Journalists' Right to Report in the Digital Age campaign.

Journalists must be able to communicate safely with sources to do their jobs. As CPJ Staff Technologist Tom Lowenthal explained in a recent blog on encryption, sources "need be assured of privacy before agreeing to talk." Encryptionmitigatesthe threat of eavesdropping, or removes it altogether. It can even be effective against sophisticated intelligence agencies, the importance of which isunderscored by news reports this week.

On Monday, The Guardian reported that in 2008 British intelligence agency GCHQ intercepted and saved communications between reporters and editors at some of the largest news outlets in the world. It also reported that the British government classifies journalists as a threat to national security, "routinely" locating them between terrorists and criminal hackers in its threat indices. "[J]ournalists and reporters representing all types of news media represent a potential threat to security," one of the internal documents read, according to theGuardian. "Of specific concern are 'investigative journalists' who specialise in defence-related exposés either for profit or what they deem to be of the public interest."

Although the U.K. is an open and democratic country, since the revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden first hit newsstands in June 2013, the press has come under pressure. Powerful laws such as the Terrorism Act and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) have been used to get around journalistic protections; law enforcement authorities warnedthat those sharing the video of journalist James Foley being murdered could face prosecution; Internet providers have begun filtering swaths of the Internet at the behest of the government; the director of GCHQ described U.S. technology companies [as] creating "the command and control networks of choice for terrorists;" GCHQ officials forced Guardian staff to grind their hard drives into dust; a senior police official threatened the newspaper's top editor and staff with prosecution for publishing the Snowden leaks; GCHQ reportedly plotted to target journalists for surveillance and exploitation under electronic spying rules (including rules that allow for the targeting of journalists); and Cameronthreatened to enjoin publications if they continued to publish anything about the country's surveillance excesses.

Read the full post at the Committee to Protect Journalists website