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Prime Minister considers banning social media, interferes with journalists' editorial independence

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has responded to social unrest with plans to shutdown social media, and requests for footage of riots from journalists
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has responded to social unrest with plans to shutdown social media, and requests for footage of riots from journalists

Access Now

On the heels of riots in England this month, Prime Minister David Cameron's government is looking at banning the use of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook in order to stop suspected rioters from sharing online messages to foment violence. Cameron has also called on broadcasters to hand over unused footage of the riots to police. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warn that censorship does not prevent social unrest, and that sharing personal data with police is a disturbing precedent.

After his statement to parliament, Cameron said Home Secretary Theresa May will be talking to Facebook, Twitter and Research In Motion (RIM). According to "The Guardian", he urged Twitter and Facebook to remove messages, images and videos that could incite unrest. Cameron has also asked the police if they need new powers.

RIM, the Canadian manufacturer of the popular BlackBerry smartphone, has already provided Scotland Yard with information about a number of BlackBerry users, endangering their personal data, says RSF. "We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can," RIM announced on Twitter.

RSF says, "If information provided by RIM leads to arrests, questions will be raised about the validity of the evidence and the legality of the way it was acquired." It could also have major consequences as an example for other governments.

In the past, RIM has yielded to ultimatums from repressive regimes in countries such as United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for filtering websites, access to user data, or the censorship of encrypted services.

Cameron's suggestion that leading broadcasters hand over footage would "turn them into police auxiliaries," said RSF.

"Broadcasters must not be obliged to provide authorities with raw footage in the absence of any legal due process. Such demands directly endanger journalists and compromise their ability to report the news," said CPJ.

On 10 August, BBC's head of newsgathering, Fran Unsworth, said handing over footage would damage broadcasters' editorial independence.

According to CPJ, the media may be sharing incriminating evidence with the police. "In the U.K., under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the police can obtain an order from a judge forcing the media to provide unpublished material."

During the riots, CPJ reported that British journalists were direct targets of the violence. Rioters ran after Mark Stone, a Sky News reporter, who had just returned from Libya. He was forced to withdraw from the unrest near Clapham Junction in London on 8 August. In Croydon the same day, BBC and Sky News reporters had to retreat when rioters smashed their vehicles' windows.

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