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United Kingdom29 May 2008

Freelance journalist’s refusal to surrender material highlights need for more precision in laws on protection of sources

Reporters Without Borders called today for stronger and more precise legal protection for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources as the Greater Manchester police continued its attempts to get freelance journalist Shiv Malik to hand over his notes, recordings and lists of contacts for a forthcoming book about a former jihadist and radical Islamism in Britain.

After appealing against the “production order” he was served by the police in March under the Terrorism Act 2000, Malik appeared before the Royal Court of Justice on 21 and 22 May to defend his refusal to surrender the material. The court is expected to issue its decision in June.

When served with the same production order, Malik’s publisher, Constable and Robinson, simply handed over the latest draft of the book, to be called “Leaving Al-Qaeda : Inside the Mind of a British Jihadist.”

In the book, former jihadist Hassan Butt claims he was involved in terrorist activity including the bombing of the US consulate in Karachi in June 2002. Butt was arrested on 9 May at Manchester airport under the Terrorism Act but was freed 12 days later without being charged.

The Greater Manchester police served similar production orders on the BBC, CBS News, Prospect Magazine and the Sunday Times, which have also done stories on Butt. Like Malik, they also refused to comply. “Unless there are compelling reasons, the press should not be forced to turn over working notes,” CBS News vice president Linda Mason told the Washington Post on 21 May. “There’s nothing like that in this case.”

The appeals of these four news organisations were due to have been heard on 23 May, but were postponed pending the outcome of Malik’s appeal.

In a telephone conversation, Malik told Reporters Without Borders that his safety and that of his wife and sources could no longer be guaranteed if he was forced to surrender the requested material.

This case is not just about Malik and his book. It is one more example of how parts of the Terrorism Act 2000 are the incompatible with press freedom. Articles 19 and 38 of the act require any person in possession of information about terrorism and terrorist movements to communicate this information immediately to the police. Refusal to comply is a criminal act punishable by imprisonment.

In other words, anyone doing research into terrorism in Britain is supposed to pass on their information to the police as soon as they obtain it. If enforced, this would mean the end of investigative reporting on the subject.

“The European Court of Human Rights has issued several reminders of its commitment to the confidentiality of sources by condemning states that do not comply with this principle,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is legitimate to combat terrorism but not at the expense of the equally legitimate right to the protection of sources, the cornerstone of a free and independent press.”

The press freedom organisation added : “This latest case highlights the growing need for more precision in the restrictions placed on the protection of the confidentiality of sources both in European Union member states and in other countries. We would like these restrictions to be better defined and more protective for journalists and their sources, as they are in Belgian law.”

Belgium’s law on the confidentiality of journalists’ sources says : “This confidentiality can be violated only at the request of a judge and only if the revelations of the sources in question are the only means to prevent the commission of crimes threatening the physical safety of one or more persons and only if, furthermore, this information is of crucial importance in preventing the commission of these crimes and no other means exists to obtain it.”

In a release on 14 May, Reporters Without Borders also voiced concern about certain provisions in a bill on the protection of the confidentiality of sources that had been submitted to the French parliament by the justice minister. It was approved by deputies on its first reading the next day.

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