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GCHQ's 'harvesting' of journalists' correspondence threatens free speech

A detail from graffiti art is seen on a wall near the headquarters of the GCHQ, in Cheltenham, UK, 16 April 2014
A detail from graffiti art is seen on a wall near the headquarters of the GCHQ, in Cheltenham, UK, 16 April 2014

REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

This statement was originally published on on 19 January 2015.

Today's revelations that a GCHQ programme 'harvested' correspondence between journalists and editors at news organisations such as the BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post, is a clear threat to free speech and journalism in the public interest, PEN International, English PEN and PEN American Center said today.

In 2013, the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed that the GCHQ TEMPORA programme had accessed undersea fibre-optic cables, gaining access to vast amounts of private communications data. Recent analysis of the Snowden documents has revealed that thousands of pieces of journalists' correspondence were swept up when the data was processed. Spies designated investigative journalists as 'a potential threat to security'.

The protection of journalistic sources has long been recognised as one of the basic necessities for a free press. Without a guaranteed protection, whistle-blowers will be deterred from coming forward, the press cannot report facts accurately, and citizens are denied an informed discussion on matters of public interest.

This invasion of private e-mail correspondence is just the latest example of the British security services' abuse of surveillances laws to undermine the principles of press freedom. Last year it was revealed that the police had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to access the communications of The Sun political editor Tom Newton-Dunn, and reporters from the Mail on Sunday.

Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International said:

The work of investigative journalists – be it in uncovering corruption or abuse – is central to a free society, not a threat to national security. By designating journalists as 'threats' alongside terrorists it is governments which are threatening free expression.

Jo Glanville, Executive Director of English PEN said:

It's now 18 months since Snowden's revelations and still the shocks keep coming. Over the past two weeks, world leaders, including David Cameron, have recognised the cardinal importance of freedom of expression. Yet in practice, they undermine it on a regular basis. Spying on journalists is the most serious possible assault on that freedom. Without confidentiality, without protection of sources, journalists cannot do their job and democracy is in danger.

Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of the PEN American Center said:

The spectre of governments nosing into journalists' private emails evokes all that is worst and most dangerous about the surveillance state. Reports that GCHQ has collected journalists' emails, and considers investigative journalists a 'threat', underscore how urgently we need to rein in these programmes with stronger oversight, greater transparency, and better protection for freedom of expression.

What other IFEX members are saying
  • On democracy day, it's time for intelligence agencies to tell the truth

    Democracy as an idea deserves more than a rubber stamp, a boiler plate response, and an uninterested oversight body. Sadly in Britain when it comes to the actions and policies of our intelligence agencies these are what we are faced with in our democratic system.

  • Prime Minister - journalism is not a threat to national security

    Reporters Without Borders points out that freedom of information is protected by many international treaties and is a keystone of democracy and the rule of law because it protects the existence of the other fundamental freedoms.

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