A few days ago the IFJ organised a highly successful conference on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack under the theme “Journalists in the Shadow of Terror Laws”. Scores of journalists, law makers and academics discussed the impact of these laws on journalism and called, among other things, for the elimination of all laws that criminalise journalism, or restrict the protection of sources.
Even before the recommendations of the conference were sent out, the London Metropolitan Police announced today they will attempt on 23rd September to seek an order by a judge at the Old Bailey to force Guardian journalists Amelia Hill and Nick Davis to handover documents relating to the source for several articles on the phone hacking scandal published last July.
The Met Police is alleging that the journalists breached the 1989 Official Secrets Act, more specifically a rarely used clause 5 used against individuals who pass on “damaging” leaked by government officials. The Police claim that these journalists may have incited police officers involved in Operation Weeting on the hacking enquiry into leaking information about the hacking of the phone of missing murdered girl Milly Dowler and about the identity of arrested News International executives.
So obscure is clause 5 that the only attempt to use against a journalist some 11 years ago came to nothing. This case followed the publication by Tony Geraghty of The Irish War, a book describing the British army computer databases in Northern Ireland. Both the author and Lieutenant Colonel Wylde, a former military intelligence officer were arrested. The case was later dropped. In the same year, another attempt by the police to get a production order to get the Guardian and the Observer to provide their correspondence with MI5 officer David Shayler also failed.
Many voices including the NUJ have denounced this clumsy attempt by the Met Police to get at the Guardian's sources by going around article 10 of the Human Rights Act which clearly set out the protection of sources as a cornerstone of press freedom, a principle repeatedly reaffirmed by the European court of human rights.
If the matter goes to court, the journalists may be facing jail for contempt. The whole issue is proving embarrassing for a police force that, for years, failed to investigate criminal hackers but now wants to jail the journalists who exposed them.