July 21, 2015 Leave a comment
Of all the things I hold to be true and self-evident:
That all men and women and everyone across the spectrum are born equal under the law,
That fundamental political, civil and human rights in a healthy democratic society are subordinate to the oversight of an informed population,
That the guardians of said information are entitled to freedom from governmental interference, harassment, and intimidation.
Of all the things that have infuriated me over the past two years and committed by the conservative administration of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland:
The arrest and detention of David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s husband, at Heathrow Airport under counter-terrorism legislation;
The passing of the Justice and Security Act of 2013, setting up secret trials for terrorism suspects;
The confiscation of Ian Cobain’s notebooks containing notes from the Incedal trial by Her Majesty’s Intelligence Services.
The latter point has seldom been reported on. Cobain himself has published several pieces about it, framing the event in a broader, sharper light, casting away the politics of national security obfuscation that has become Home Secretary Theresa May’s trademark. Open justice and access to information are violated in the name of protecting national security interests. Why this trial had to be held away from the eyes of the press will never be known: the notebooks were confiscated, grabbed by MI-5 agents outside of the courtroom and are currently held in a vault inside Thames House. What those notebooks contained is even restricted in itself: “On each occasion, the evidence was carefully presented in one of three sessions. Parts of the case were in open court, with the press and the public free to come and go; other parts were held behind locked doors, before a jury whose members were warned that they could go to jail if they ever divulged what they had heard; and parts were held in intermediate sessions, in the presence of the jury and a small group of journalists who are prohibited – at least for the time being – from reporting what they learned” writes Cobain in March, recalling the events leading to that illusion of open justice. What we know of Erol Incedal, the 27 year old London resident and law student, was that he was found in possession of a bomb making manual in the trunk of his car. We also know that his surveillance started after a routine traffic stop in London. The blackout only resulted in one public curt decision: the court failed to reach a verdict in the charge of committing acts preparatory to terrorism. He was acquitted on the charges of committing preparatory acts of terrorism; he was however guilty of being in possession of the bomb-making manual.
Assuming there is a valid purpose to secrecy in the course of justice, methods are already in place through the submission of PII certificates – confidentiality – by the government to the judge. The evidence itself can thus be concealed from public access, should this pertain to ongoing intelligence activities, military strategies and deployments, or sealed diplomatic documents. PII certificates have similar applications in other countries and other systems of laws, and have worked just fine until then – sometimes even to the point of working too well, when certificates are requested then issues for a troubling majority of the content discussed during the trial. Every case surrounding alleged criminal activity committed by the government’s intelligence agencies have been shrouded in secrecy; the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) itself extends non-committal statements through its determination / non determination system, which is suggestive, not declarative. In itself, those cover an impressive array of restrictions to the principle of open justice. What the JSA 2013 does, and what happened to Ian Cobain and his peers covering the Incedal trial, has crossed an untenable and inexcusable limit.
2013, 2014 and 2015 were not good years to be a journalist in the UK. Those were not good years to work at the Guardian. For wanton acts of publishing to commission of acts of journalism, the King’s Way newspaper has seen its headquarters invaded by GCHQ agents in a humiliating, destabilizing, and thoroughly disturbing destruction of their hard drives allegedly containing the NSA files handed by Edward Snowden – despite GCHQ fully knowing that copies of the files were stored at other newspapers’, as well as disseminated worldwide to precisely avoid their utter destruction. The goal was to belittle and cripple The Guardian. The goal was to show journalists their place in the war on terrorism and the surveillance apparatus. The avowed goal was to make journalists understand it is not their place to reveal anything that would not be preemptively approved by the government. The goal was to make the press hear, as clearly as a clarion on a naval base, that truth was not convenient; that an informed public is a threat to institutional status quo; that any alleged violations of fundamental human rights were proportionally weighed against the protection and the security of the realm; that it is not the job of a journalist to place a question mark at the end of this sentence.
Except it is. A journalist is not a spokesperson. A journalist is not a press secretary. A journalist is not the political amplifier of those in power. A journalist should always have a question mark.
In a situation that we learn of drip by drip, leak by leak, whistle by whistle, reporting by reporting, the question of access to courts, access to representation, and access to justice becomes more and more obfuscated. It is not just that the trial is heard in secret; it’s that evidence held against the defendant is rarely communicated to their legal representation. In one Kafkaesque twist after the other, the very claim put to the court becomes obscured by the fog of the war on terror. Where justice is expected to shed a light on abusive proceedings, it is itself impended by mechanisms violating its independence and its separation from powers of governance. We do not know how much Erol Incedal knows about what the security services know about him. We do not know if he was fully informed of the charges made against him. We do not know on which grounds his acquittal was decided. All we know is that he was present; journalists, however, kept being held back, pushed away, or let inside for a maximum of three minutes. Ian Cobain’s notes could not have been anything more than what had been graciously and magnanimously exhibited to him in those extremely rare peaks inside the courtroom. His notes could not say, detail, or reveal more than the trial itself had let open on those occasions. And yet, his notes, taken down on a reporter’s notebook, are inside a vault at the MI-5 headquarters.
In 2014, the High Court decision in Miranda v UK exposed several gaping holes in the safeguards for press freedom in the Empire. Judge Laws, in rare form, referred to a legal precedent – Attorney General v Guardian Newspapers (1990), quoting Lord Goff: “I can see no inconsistency between English law on this subject and Article 10 (…) The only difference is that, whereas Article 10 of the Convention, in accordance with its avowed purpose, proceeds to state a fundamental right and then to qualify it, we in this country (where everybody is free to do anything, subject only to the provisions of the law) proceed rather upon an assumption of freedom of speech, and turn to our law to discover the established exceptions to it.” It is now the established law that terror trials can be lawfully held in secret if such is the decision of the Government and is endorsed by the hearing Judge. It is disturbing enough that the fundamental right to freedom of information and press freedom is directed through methods of concealment and confidentiality that are at no point weighed against informed consent or democratic principle, but instead the safety of the organizations that are targeted by the alleged criminal conduct. That the same organizations are now entitled to grab a reporter’s notebook – protected by press freedom principles – and hold it hostage inside a vault like a hazardous substance – goes way, way further than what Lord Goff intended to protect in 1990.
Richard Norton-Taylor tried to explain the situation in a July 14 piece for the Guardian that raises more questions than it provides answers. Officials leave little to account for, and the confiscation targeted eight journalists specifically, on a measure that is unprecedented. It is presented almost like a last resort: “During the trial, the reporters had to leave their notebooks in court. At the end of the trial, eight reporters’ notebooks were taken (…) officials have not been able to explain it. While they say there was nothing sinister in it – the court provided for the crown to store them securely – they also say there was nowhere safe in court for this to be done, so the MI-5 has effectively impounded them.” Cobain provided a quote that is in complete defiance of the “nothing sinister” qualifier: “Only once before, in more than 30 years of journalism, has a state security officer impounded one of my notebooks”, said Cobain to Norton-Taylor. “And that was in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.”
Something should jump to any legal pair of eyes. Why did the Court provide for the Crown to “securely store” reporters’ notebooks in the first place?
Some would argue – Lord Laws, probably – that journalism protection is a privilege, not a right. Lord Goff argued that this right is self-evident, until the law sweeps in to take parts of it away in the name of national security. Both are wrong. Press freedom is a human right, and so is freedom of information. The national security exemption, as defined and strictly limited in the Johannesburg Principles – normative, not positive, the only concession to be made – does not extend to barring access to an ongoing trial entirely, and certainly not to confiscate, indefinitely, notes taken by reporters. Cobain made several unsuccessful appeals to have his notes returned. Lord Thomas heard the appeal made by collective news organizations, to which the aforementioned eight reporters belonged, and concluded that the decision raised “really difficult constitutional issues”. Lord Thomas, never one to fight on behalf of confidentiality – he did, after all, request the partial release of UKUSA in the Binyam Mohamed case – mentioned this disturbing intervention of the executive resulting in the breach of judicial independence. This should never be a norm. This should never be an acceptable or normalized state of affairs. The appeal, adjourned until October, may shed a light on the justifications made by the executive to go to that unbearable extent to silence the press, hinder journalistic work, and shield counter terrorism and terrorism suspects from public scrutiny and knowledge – and in the hands, entirely, of intelligence services.
Until then, indeed, and until Lord Thomas makes a not so difficult, but politically adverse decision regarding the independence status of the British judiciary in matters of terrorism and those who report on the security state -until then, there is little one can do to ensure that those notebooks won’t be tampered with. Until then, we can’t expect the freedom of the press to be fully exercised from inside the borders of England and Wales.