Thursday, 27 November 2008

What price freedom?

Spyblog has a very relevant question:


Why is it that our politicians, both in the UK and in the rest of Europe, seem to be so weak, that they have allowed themselves to be manipulated by the terrorist threat, and vested securocrat interests, to weaken our fundamental freedoms and liberties, without any noticeable gain in actual security?


Part of the answer may lie in a report on "the effects of counter-terrorism legislation on the freedom of the media in Europe", which is available in pdf format. It's quite long, but full of fascinating details - and, unusually, compares the situation across several different countries. We may imagine that New Labour has a particular fetish for thought-control mass surveillance, if only because Jacqui Smith seems so thrilled every time she announces some new outrage. In reality, virtually every government in the western world is at it.

The report - carried out, strangely enough, at the behest of the Council of Europe - places much of the blame for this on international organisations, especially the UN, the EU and the CoE itself - all of which, of course, are more or less beyond democratic control. The author, Privacy International's David Banisar, argues that "many international agreements either ignore or only pay scant attention to fundamental human rights and the importance of a free media." The UN Security Council in particular has overlooked human rights principles when drafting proposals that are then turned into national laws following a cosmetic and largely fictional process of consultation and parliamentary debate. The EU's love of harmonisation has also worked in favour of increasing the scope of restrictions.

Banisar writes,

New laws on prohibiting speech that is considered "extremist" or supporting of terrorism have been a particular problem. These laws are used in many jurisdictions to suppress political and controversial speech. Newspapers have been closed and journalists arrested. Web sites are often taken down or blocked.


Laws supposedly aimed at terrorists have been deployed against journalists and photographers. The tradition of journalistic confidentiality is ignored. Newsrooms have been searched. Then there are the surveillance powers and, more recently, the move towards data retention on a massive scale. Britain's version of this is likely to be a mega-database of every phone-call, internet search and text message - although this has been shelved to allow Gordon Brown to concentrate on winning the election saving the economy. "Controls on these powers" he writes "are often insufficient." Indeed.

Banisar also points out that in introducing so many draconian restrictions European governments are ignoring their own commitments:

In 2005 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe issued a “Declaration on freedom of expression and information in the media in the context of the fight against terrorism”. The Declaration called on member states to respect media rights and to not unnecessarily introduce new restrictions on freedom of expression and information; to not treat journalists’ reporting of terrorism as supporting of it; to ensure access to information, scenes of acts, and judicial proceedings; to protect their sources; and not to pressure them.

In 2007 the Ministers issued further guidelines on “protecting freedom of expression in times of crisis”, including terrorist attacks. The guidelines remind governments of their obligations to ensure that journalists have access to information; that sources and information
gathered should not be revealed or seized; that public access to information should not be limited; and that “vague terms” such as incitement should not be used to limit freedom of expression and should be clearly defined.

These two instruments set out a baseline that CoE member states should be following. It is the finding of this study that those guidelines have not been respected by all nations.

There's also this quote from former UN secretary general Kofi Annan: We are seeing an increasing use of what I call the ‘T-word’ – terrorism – to demonise political opponents, to throttle freedom of speech and the press, and to delegitimise legitimate political grievances.

Of course, no-one would suggest that such a thing happened in Britain.

On the role of the UN, Banisar notes that the Security Council has "been long criticised by human rights groups, academics, state governments and even UN officials for focusing on adopting legislation and paying little or no attention to the human rights effects of the legislation, ignoring obvious human rights concerns and failing to raise the issue with member states." The process began with the international reaction to 9/11. Then "in September 2005, following the London bombings, the Security Council issued a non-binding resolution proposed by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair which expanded the restrictions on speech". While subsequent resolutions by the essentially toothless Human Rights Commission have redressed the balance somewhat, "many observers still remain concerned that an imbalance remains with the human rights protections limited to mostly general or declaratory statements while legal obligations which affect human rights are more specifically set out."

The Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism (2005) introduced by the Council of Europe bans not just incitement but also "public provocation". Moreover, it contains clauses relating to extradition, which cannot be refused "on the sole ground that it concerns a political offence or an offence connected with a political offence or an offence inspired by political motives." Banisar notes that Russia, a CoE member, has "enthusiastically embraced" the convention.

On the EU, we discover (not entirely to our surprise) that

the process under which various instruments have been adopted has generally been non-transparent. The European Union has been extremely active under the 3rd Pillar (Justice and Home Affairs) in the promoting of enhanced law enforcement powers to fight crime and terrorism which is not subject to the same controls and Parliamentary oversight as other areas of EU activity.

Perhaps most disturbing is what the report calls "a significant trend in the increased use of state secret laws to penalise whistle-blowers and journalists who publish information of public interest." There are several examples given of journalists being arrested or prosecuted for publishing politically embarrassing stories - including the arrest of ITN's Neil Garrett, who revealed police efforts to mislead the public over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Internet censorship, blocking and filtering also comes under Banisar's gaze. I was particularly amazed to learn that in Finland, "a law adopted in 2006 that was supposed to only cover child pornography has already been used to block a site that was critical of the government body that is in charge of it".

Overall, the impression given is that the history, traditions and political set-up in the various countries have less influence that might be expected. "Even historically human rights friendly nations have been adopting excessive and disproportionate legislation," writes Banisar. Thus laws against "glorification of terrorism" have been introduced in the UK, Russia, Lithuania and Andorra (!). Russia and Turkey would seem to be generally the worst offenders, as might be expected, but there have also been worrying developments (arrests of journalists, intrusive surveillance) in places as seemingly benign as Switzerland and Denmark.

In too many cases, says Banisar

The legislation and policies adopted are disproportionate and appear to be used in
abusive ways not to protect public safety and the nation but rather the political interests of governments...

The international bodies have developed unbalanced instruments that do not adequately ensure that human rights are protected. In part, that is because some of the worst national governments are the strongest supporters of expansive international instruments to justify their domestic abuses. The Commission and Council of the European Union have been especially deficient in ensuring that human rights are respected in their proposals relating to anti-terrorism and communications privacy. The Council of Europe’s efforts on anti-terrorism and cyber-crime are not noteworthy for inclusion of human rights concerns either.


He concludes with the wish that "the Council of Europe should take leadership of a pro-human rights effort to ensure that national governments and international bodies are respecting human
rights." Well, we can hope. But to return to Spyblog's question, why are the politicians so "weak" when it comes to defending values like free speech? Have they "allowed themselves to be manipulated"? Or do they gain genuince political advantage by acting tough? After all, the "hard-working families" who "play by the rules" don't suffer from all these restrictions, do they? Most of the time, perhaps not. But the nightmarish surveillance society now being constructed, with its ID cards, its databases, its suffocating conformity - leave your bin out ten minutes early and we'll fine you, we've got the cameras - isn't just for us. Even Jacqui Smith, once she leaves office, will have to live in it. There is, perhaps, a crumb of comfort in such thoughts.

2 comments:

therealalekid said...

I'm just watching the BBC News apparently a Tory MP has been arrested. Stalinesque they're calling it.

I think this could be a huge row.

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