UK Police stonewalls Journalists challenging Seizure of Journalists Phone Records

London, United Kingdom (nsnbc) A team of lawyers working on pro-bono basis lodged a complaint to the Information Commissioner about the police’s stonewalling of journalists’ Freedom of Information Requests tied to the seizure of journalistic phone records.

The initiative was taken by Press Gazette that states that every police in the UK has rejected the newspaper’s FoI requests on the issue. The legal team has sent a 3,000 word appeal document to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), reports Press Gazette.

The document calls for nine police forces to reveal how many times they accessed journalists’ phone records between 2011 and 2014.

The newspaper is represented by Caroline Kean, a partner and head of litigation at Wiggin LLP,  Eileen Weinert, an assistant solicitor at Wiggin, and barrister Robin Hopkins, who specialises in information law at 11KBW. Press Gazette quotes a statement by Kean and Weinert, saying:

“The need to protect the confidentiality of journalistic sources is crucial to safeguard the free press in a democratic society. … “The public has a very pressing interest in knowing if journalists are routinely subject to RIPA surveillance without any consideration of their profession and their obligations of professional secrecy and we are delighted to be assisting the Press Gazette in this complaint to the Information Commissioner.”

The newspaper took issue with and launched its initiative on September 11, 2014, after it emerged that the Metropolitan Police had secretly obtained the phone records of The Sun as part of its Plebgate leak investigation, Press Gazette’s first FoI was submitted. It asked:

Between 1 January 2004 and today’s date (11 September 2014), on how many occasions has your police force used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to obtain information from the telephone records of journalists, news organisations or any other news organisation employees?

Please list all such cases, including: the date, the name of the person (and their position) /organisation concerned, when their records were obtained, what the purpose of obtaining the information was (i.e. what was the police force looking for) and whether the police force succeeded in obtaining the information.

If you are unable to answer to answer these questions in full, please provide as much information as possible.

No police forces answered these questions. 29 reportedly stated that “they could not afford to answer under FoI cost restrictions while 16 would neither confirm or deny whether they held the information. The newspaper states that it is especially concerned with helping the public understand the scale on which the RIPA surveillance powers have been used against media.

The development comes against a wider trend to crack down on whistleblowers and against journalists who are attempting to provide a platform for information that is of interest to the public by using confidential sources. The development also comes against the backdrop of disclosures that the UK’s GCHQ, the United States’ NSA and other agencies have literally monitored all telephone conversations for years.

To provide just one practical example for what extra burden these developments put on journalists and especially on independent journalists and media: It took nsnbc about six months to arrange a meeting with a Lebanese whistleblower from the inner circle around the former Lebanese PM Saad Hariri.

The source provided witness testimony backed by audio and other physical evidence to proof that the final decision to launch a predominantly U.S.-managed invasion of Iraq with ISIS (Islamic State) fell on the sidelines of the Atlantic Council’s Energy Summit in Turkey, in November 2013.

No phones, no electronic correspondence could be used. Every aspect of the communication had to be arranged in person, by in situ contact, using counter-surveillance methods.  Considerable expenses were added to assure that meeting places were not bugged.

The UK police forces response to Press Gazette’s FoI request and the use of RIPA against journalists is not unlike the image that UK media who are known for their cooperation with British intelligence services are touting about North Korea (DPRK). nsnbc international unequivocally supports Press Gazette’s FoI request and the newspaper’s legal action.

Cell phones. "Chargepod 2" by Mmckinley - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain

Cell phones.
“Chargepod 2” by Mmckinley – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain

CH/L – nsnbc 28.05.2015

Written by Christof Lehmann 

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