70 rights groups caution Cameron over UK response to surveillance

SEAPA joined 70 free speech, human rights, internet and media freedom organisations from around the world in writing to the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, to voice their concern about the erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms in the country.

The open letter comes in response to a series of events in the wake of the Guardian newspaper’s reporting of the Edward Snowden disclosures, revealing mass surveillance of digital communications by the UK security agency, GCHQ.

In the letter, the international coalition states its deep concern about the way in which the UK government is using national security arguments to restrict individuals and media organisations who have helped generate an important public interest debate. The coalition believes that it is crucial that the people of the UK should be able to have an open and informed discussion about the acceptable parameters of state surveillance, as well as a mechanism to ensure the oversight and accountability of such surveillance.

“If the government opened every letter you received and took a photocopy of it without you knowing, I’m confident most people would think that was unacceptable. As a result of the Guardian’s reporting we now know that the security agencies have the power to do the equivalent thing online. In essence, this is about the distinct possibility that private personal correspondence, photographs, bank statements and more can be accessed by agents of the state without appropriate oversight” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19

“The knee-jerk reaction of David Cameron and the government has been to shoot the messengers. Edward Snowden, David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian are being painted as the villains of this piece. They are being targeted for raising a matter of serious public interest. This seems to be a convenient distraction from what might otherwise be a story about state overreach and inadequate oversight of power” added Hughes.

The open letter raises specific concern about:

  1. The detention of David Miranda and the seizure of his property by UK officials at Heathrow airport using laws designed to catch terrorists. David Miranda is a Brazilian national and the partner of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke a series of stories concerning mass state surveillance in the USA and UK.
  2. The sustained pressure that is being applied against the Guardian newspaper, including forcing the destruction of computer hard-drives at the newspaper.
  3. The Prime Minister advocating for a parliamentary review as to whether the Guardian had damaged national security through publication of stories concerning mass surveillance.
  4. The subsequent announcement that the Home Affairs Select Committee will question the newspaper as part of its counter-terrorism inquiry.

“We recognise that targeted electronic surveillance can play a vital role in national security measures to protect democratic societies. However, national security must not be used as an excuse to erode the rights and freedoms at the heart of democracies” added Hughes.

* ENDS *

 [Full text of letter and complete list of co-signatories]

Thomas Hughes – Executive Director – ARTICLE 19
On behalf of a coalition of 70 organisations
FreeWord Centre, 60 Farringdon Road,
London EC1R 3GA
Thomas@ARTICLE19.org

5 November 2013

Dear Prime Minister,

We have joined together as an international coalition of free speech, media freedom and human rights organisations because we believe that the United Kingdom government’s response to the revelations of mass surveillance of digital communications is eroding fundamental human rights in the country. The government’s response has been to condemn, rather than celebrate investigative journalism, which plays a crucial role in a healthy democratic society.

We are alarmed at the way in which the UK government has reacted, using national security legislation against those who have helped bring this public interest information to global attention. We are concerned about:

  • The use of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to detain the Brazilian media worker, David Miranda on 18 August 2013 at London Heathrow Airport. Miranda was carrying journalistic material on behalf of the UK’s Guardian newspaper and is the partner of the journalist, Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story of mass surveillance of digital communications by the UK and USA
  • The sustained pressure against the UK’s Guardian newspaper for reporting the disclosures of whistleblower, Edward Snowden, including sending officials to force the Guardian to destroy harddrives allegedly containing information from Snowden
  • Your call on 16 October 2013 for a House of Commons Select Committee to review whether the Guardian has damaged national security by publishing material provided by Edward Snowden, and a subsequent announcement that the review will be conducted by the Home Affairs Select Committee as part of their inquiry into anti-terrorism.

We believe these actions clearly violate the right to freedom of expression, which is protected under British, European and international law. Under such laws, the right to freedom of expression includes the protection of both journalists, and those that assist them in the course of their vital work.

The right to freedom of expression and media freedom enable the free flow of information in order for the public to hold their governments to account. While the protection of national security can be a legitimate ground for restricting the right under international law, such restrictions are narrowly defined. Governments must show that a restriction is necessary to achieve a legitimate purpose and must be proportionate to the aim pursued. The presumption in favour of freedom of expression requires governments to demonstrate that the expression will actually harm national security; it is not sufficient to simply say that it will.

National security should never be used to justify preventing disclosures of illegalities or wrongdoing, no matter how embarrassing such disclosures may be to the UK or other governments. In the case of Snowden and the Guardian, the disclosures have facilitated a much-needed public debate about mass surveillance in a democracy, and exposed the possible violation of the fundamental human rights of millions of people worldwide. As such, no liability should be incurred as the benefit to the public outweighs the demonstrable harm to national security.

We also believe that this use of national security will have dangerous consequences for the right to freedom of expression and media freedom in the UK and beyond, creating a hostile and intimidating environment and discouraging those who could reveal uncomfortable truths and hold those in power to account. We are concerned that this will further create negative consequences for the reputation of the UK as an advocate for the protection and realisation of the right to freedom of expression and media freedom worldwide. States with little regard for the human rights of their people will seek to use the UK’s example to legitimise their own repressive practices.

The UK has a strong history of democracy, and while targeted surveillance may play an important role in protecting national security, in doing so it should not erode the very values it seeks to protect. We call on you to honour the UK’s international obligations to defend and protect the right to freedom of expression and media freedom, and to end the UK government’s pressure on the Guardian and those who assist them.

Yours Sincerely,

Gergana Jouleva, Access to Information Programme, Bulgaria
Mircea Toma, ActiveWatch, Romania
Ahmad Quraishi, Afghanistan Journalists Center
Remzi Lani, Albanian Media Institute
Thomas Hughes, ARTICLE 19, international
Zuliana Lainez, Asociacion Nacional de Periodistas del Peru (ANP)
Khaled Amami, Association of Citizenship and Digital Culture (ACCUN), Tunisia
Jasna Milanovic, Association of Independent Electronic Media, Serbia
Hans de Zwart, Bits for Freedom, Netherlands
Guilherme Alpendre, Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism
Yuri Dzhibladze, Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, Russia
Ramana Sorn, Cambodian Center for Human Rights
Laura Tribe, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Olexandra Matviichuk, Center for Civil Liberties, Ukraine
Ioana Avadani, Center for Independent Journalism, Romania
Masjaliza Hamzah, Centre for Independent Journalism, Malaysia
Paul Dawnson Formaran, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Philippines
Dr Leila Alieva, Center for National and International Studies, Azerbaijan
Edison Lanza, Centro de Archivos y Acceso a la Información Pública (CAinfo), Uruguay
Cristian Horchert, Chaos Computer Club, Germany
Kate Watters, Crude Accountability, USA
Jillian York, Electronic Frontier Foundation, international
Jo Glanville, English PEN
Shiva Gaunle, Federation of Nepali Journalists
Karim Lahidji, FIDH / International Federation for Human Rights
Andres D’Alessandro, Foro de Periodismo Argentino, Argentina
Chiranuch Jiew, Foundation for Community Educational Media (Prachatai), Thailand
Trevor Timm, Freedom of the Press Foundation, USA
Ayushjav Tumurbaatar, Globe International Center, Mongolia
Eka Popkhadze, GYLA, Georgia
Artus Sakunts, Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, Armenia
Avetik Ishkhanyan, Helsinki Committee of Armenia
Danuta Przywara, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Poland
Eldar Zeynalov, Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan
Rasul Jafarov, Human Rights Club, Azerbaijan
Robert Ssempala, Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda
Sanar Yurdatapan, Initiative for Freedom of Expression, Turkey
Emin Huseynov, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Azerbaijan
Mayumi Ortecho, Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, Latin America
Elizabeth Ballantine, Inter American Press Association
Ann-Sophie Nyman, International Partnership for Human Rights, Belgium
Alison Bethel McKenzie, International Press Institute
Yevgeniy Zhovtis, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law
Mariya Yasenovska, Kharkiv Regional Foundation ‘Public Alternative’, Ukraine
Alban Muriqi, Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims
Shami Chakrabarti, Liberty, UK
Prof. Amal Jamal, Media Center for Arab Palestinians, Israel
Meri Bekeshova, Media Workers’ Trade Union of Kyrgyz Republic
Nani Jansen, Media Legal Defence Initiative, UK
Soe Myint, Mizzima, Myanmar
Ludmilla Alexeeva, Moscow Helsinki Group
Omar Faruk Osman, National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ)
Andre Loconte, Net Users’ Rights Protection Association (NURPA), Belgium
Gunnar M. Ekelove-Slydal, Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Alberto Cerda, ONG Derechos Digitales, Chile
Makereta Komai, Pacific Islands News Association
Owais Aslam Ali, Pakistan Press Foundation
Mousa Rimawi, Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms
Larry Siems, PEN American Center
Tasleem Thawar, PEN Canada
Laura McVeigh and Anders Heger, PEN International
Gus Hosein, Privacy International
Natalia Taubina, Public Verdict, Russia
Christophe Deloire, Reporters Without Borders, international
Oleksandra Sverdlova, No Borders Project, Social Action Center, Ukraine
Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Southeast Asian Press Alliance
Nalini Elumalai, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
Alison Meston, WAN-IFRA, international
Maria Pia Matta Cerna, World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)

Arthur Gwagwa, Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum