The awful state of civil liberties in the UK

I have been railing at the way that the US has used the war on terror to undermine basic civil liberties. In its efforts to hide its misdeeds, the war it has waged on whistleblowers and the reporters who convey their revelations has been nothing short of disgraceful.

But incredibly, it seems to be even worse in the UK which does not even have the First Amendment to provide some sort of shield as becomes clear from the way that Sarah Harrison writes about her situation. This lawyer and journalist who works for WikiLeaks and helped Edward Snowden make the transition from Hong Kong to get asylum in Russia, is now in self-imposed exile in Germany because she says that she will be arrested if she steps foot in the UK.

She says that the word terrorism is now defined so expansively that it can cover almost anything and that journalists are now considered terrorists, something we saw demonstrated David Miranda was detained and harassed when he was merely transiting through Heathrow airport.

I cannot return to England, my country, because of my journalistic work with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and at WikiLeaks. There are things I feel I cannot even write. For instance, if I were to say that I hoped my work at WikiLeaks would change government behaviour, this journalistic work could be considered a crime under the UK Terrorism Act of 2000.

The act gives a definition of terrorism as an act or threat “designed to influence the government”, that “is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” and that would pose a “serious risk” to the health or safety of a section of the public. UK government officials have continually asserted that this risk is present with the disclosure of any “classified” document.

Elsewhere the act says “the government” means the government of any country – including the US. Britain has used this act to open a terrorism investigation relating to Snowden and the journalists who worked with him, and as a pretext to enter the Guardian’s offices and demand the destruction of their Snowden-related hard drives. Britain is turning into a country that can’t tell its terrorists from its journalists.

The war on terror is turning into a monster with countries that once prided themselves on being the source of landmark advances in freedoms such as the Magna Carta and that nurtured great civil libertarian thinkers like John Stuart Mill now becoming enemies of the very liberties that they once were proud to uphold. As Harrison says:

I have thought about the extent to which British history would have been the poorer had the governments of the day had such an abusive instrument at their disposal. What would have happened to all the public campaigns carried out in an attempt to “influence the government”? I can see the suffragettes fighting for their right to vote being threatened into inaction, Jarrow marchers being labelled terrorists, and Dickens being locked up in Newgate prison.

Is it any surprise that the organization Reporters Without Borders has the UK at #33 in its rankings of 180 nations on press freedom, down 3 places from last the previous rankings? As their report says:

The United Kingdom (33rd, -3) distinguished itself in the war on terror by the disgraceful pressure it put on The Guardian newspaper and by its detention of David Miranda, journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner and assistant, for nine hours. Both the US and UK authorities seem obsessed with hunting down whistleblowers instead of adopting legislation to rein in abusive surveillance practices that negate privacy, a democratic value cherished in both countries.

In another RSF report titled the Enemies of the Internet, they describe the massive global surveillance programs run by the GCHQ that entitles the UK to the title of ‘World champions of surveillance’. Edward Snowden says that the UK is even worse than the US.

The UK is turning its back on its legacy and is very much the poorer for it.


  1. says

    The act gives a definition of terrorism as an act or threat “designed to influence the government”, that “is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” and that would pose a “serious risk” to the health or safety of a section of the public.

    Cripes. A wording that vague could be used to arrest someone for writing a letter to the editor criticizing the government.

    There have been movements in the past in England calling for a codified constitution, but it never came to pass. Politicians didn’t want to make the effort (read: didn’t want to cede unquestioned power, especially in Thatcher’s day), and there wasn’t enough public support to force the issue. I’ll bet people are regretting that now.

    I’m certainly not regretting Pierre Trudeau forcing the issue in 1982, and am glad that Canada has written guarantees and protections. At the time, many Canadians thought it was a waste of time and effort, but I’m as glad now as I was then that he did. If I were Scot, I’d definitely be voting for independence in September 2014.

    From wikipedia:

    The Labour government under past-Prime Minister Tony Blair instituted constitutional reforms in the late 1990s and early-to-mid-2000s. The effective incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998 has granted citizens specific positive rights and given the judiciary some power to enforce them. The courts can advise Parliament of primary legislation that conflicts with the Act by means of “Declarations of Incompatibility” – however Parliament is not bound to amend the law nor can the judiciary void any statute – and can refuse to enforce, or “strike down”, any incompatible secondary legislation. Any actions of government authorities that violate Convention rights are illegal except if mandated by an Act of Parliament.

    Translated: The UK government can freely ignore the European constitution. Don’t expect Brussels to defend your rights, even if they are willing to try.

  2. says

    Hey, Seth, you cannot be more than one Scot at a time. Trust me; I’ve tried, only to discover that I became No True Scotsman 😛

  3. Dunc says

    And even so, the Tories keep talking about wanting to abolish the Human Rights Act, and many of them want to leave the EU, largely to get away from the ECHR. It’s sickening.

  4. MNb says

    Good job, UK, France and USA – you are all behind Suriname (nr. 31), where currently an ex-military dictator is president.

  5. Dunc says

    It’s not just London… The UK is apparently the most heavily CCTV’d country in the world. What’s really scary is how completely normalised it’s become. Even as a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of civil rights and opponent of the surveillance state, I’ve long since stopped really caring about CCTV. I suspect that a great many people now regard not being under CCTV surveillance as somehow strange and disquieting.

    (Sidebar: when watching old Star Trek reruns, I’m constantly surprised that they don’t have surveillance footage of every area of a starship. The idea that you can effectively disappear on the Federation’s flagship simply by removing your comm badge just seems weird now. Yeah, I know plot trumps all, but if you made that in the UK today, people would say it was completely unbelievable.)

  6. Nick Gotts says

    If I were Scot, I’d definitely be voting for independence in September 2014. – left0ver1under

    As an English Scot*, I’ve been out canvassing for the Radical Independence Campaign; if the vote is for independence**, there will be – and should be – fierce political struggles over the constitution; and protection of civil liberties would certainly be one of the contested areas.

    * Sounds odd, I know, but it’s just the same formulation as African/Italian/Japanese/etc. American.

    ** It probably won’t, but this seems a considerably less safe bet than 6 months ago.

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