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UK police are putting journalists' and sources' lives at risk

It emerged this week that police had seized a laptop from a BBC reporter investigating Islamic State fighters. Shiv Malik, who fought to protect his materials from anti-terror police in 2008, explains why this move is a threat to journalists everywhere

It's a chilling moment for any journalist when a police officer demands that you hand over your belongings to them so they can pursue an investigation into someone you have spoken with. All the more so when the field that you work in is terrorism.

I know this from first hand experience. In spring 2008 three officers from the Greater Manchester Police showed up at my house at first light demanding that I hand over everything I had amassed over years of work on extremism – notebooks, laptops, phones, and any relevant correspondence – under the powers of the 2000 Terrorism Act.

GMP were investigating the principle subject of a book I was writing and they believed that without seizing my materials, garnered from over a year of interviews with him, they would not be able to build a case against him. I was the first journalist to challenge the powers of the 2000 Act – an instrument (unlike PACE) which leaves little room for journalists to defend themselves against such action. Whilst over the last seven years, the threats may have changed, police tactics certainly haven't.

This week the Independent revealed that Thames Valley Police served Secunder Kermani, a young reporter from BBC's Newsnight, with a production order in August so they could seize his laptop.

Kermani has been at the leading edge of terrorism reporting, often setting up first person interviews with UK young radicals who have declared their allegiance to the so called Islamic State. Kermani's skill in getting his subjects to set out their reasons for joining and fighting for the most notorious, viscous and effective terrorist organisations of 21stcentury work has been vital in informing the public debate about how to tackle extremists.

Off the back of this revelation, we learn now that King's College think tank, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) was forced by the Met police's counter terrorism unit SO15 to hand over a jihadist video which they had archived from publicly available sources.

"Journalists are not agents of the state"

Like Kermani, ICSR's work has been essential in allowing politicians and policy makers access to a wealth of data and analysis – much of which the centre has carried out on the basis of confidentiality.

Talking with terrorists is a job that few in any society can or are willing to do. That the authorities should interfere with such work, should give everyone serious cause for concern because of the knock on effects of these actions.

Simply put; journalists are not, and should not be regarded citizens whose work can be raided as and when the authorities mandate. We are not agents of the state. 

As I know all too acutely from personal experience, to have your belongings removed by force of law deeply debilitating. Such actions undermine your ability work freely and subsequently offer sources anonymity as a trade for opening up about the reality on the ground. This is rarely if ever about protecting those who have committed criminal acts in return for their confessions. (Note: It is already illegal for journalists not to tell police about information pertinent to a terrorism investigation). For journalists working in established media outlets, this is overwhelmingly about making society as a whole far better informed about a threat which still remains shrouded in mystery.

To give a concrete example, ICSR has been engaged with talking to Brits in Syria who are desperate to leave ISIS. Our society is far better off knowing that these people exist, what their numbers are, that they would like to return to the UK and why. If however journalists – or in this case academics- fear that they will not be able to conduct those conversations without being subsequently forced to hand over all their work to the police, then society at large will lose out massively; we will be fighting our enemies by first blindfolding ourselves.

Here's another example from my own experience. Following the 7 July attacks I spent nine months sitting with the lead bomber's brother in the back of his cab. Through those conversations, I managed to painstakingly document how Khan's internal family dynamics led him to be radicalised. It was work that the former head of MI5 Jonathan Evans subsequently called “essential reading”. From what I've been told, the article is still (nine years after its publication) used to train new recruits. Whatever the spooks have gained from this, I'm certain that Khan's brother would never have spoken to me if he believed I was a proxy for the state.

Questions still remain in Kermani's case around why the BBC didn't protest the order. The corporation has said that the Terrorism Act 2000 doesn't allow for fa ree speech defence. That is true. But that doesn't mean that the requests of the police can't be tested in other ways. The BBC should be duty bound to do this for the reasons above.

And there is now a further concern for those on the receiving end of such production orders. Following September's revelation from the prime minister that the UK is now engaged in extra judicial killing of its own citizens, how can reporters now be sure that any information handed to the police won't subsequently be used to to assassinate their sources? The state is unlikely to give assurances that material, once seized, won't be used in that way so it becomes ever more incumbent on editors and media organisations to resist such requests.

Shiv Malik is an investigative correspondent for the Guardian, and author of The Messenger, published March 2016.