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ECHR expedites 'press snooping' claim against UK Government

The European Court of Human Rights expedites claim that Government policy of data gathering is unlawful

Posted on 21 January 2015

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has given the UK Government until 6 May 2015 to respond to accusations that UK fails to adequately protect journalistic confidentiality.

The decision by the ECHR, in a claim being brought by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, comes as new revelations suggest emails from the BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, the Sun, NBC and the Washington Post were among 70,000 emails harvested in the space of less than 10 minutes on one day by GCHQ.

The Bureau is arguing that the mass gathering of sensitive information, revealed by the former CIA operative Edward Snowden, could jeopardise investigations as journalists can no longer operate with any sense of confidentiality either pre or post publication or offer any level of anonymity to their sources.

In a letter dated 14 January 2015 to lawyers Leigh Day, who acting on behalf of the Bureau, the European Court of Human Rights confirms that following a preliminary examination of the claim being brought by the Bureau, the case is being given priority.

The letter also confirmed that the Court has requested that the Government submits its observations by 6 May 2015 at which point lawyers for the Bureau will get a chance to reply to the Government submissions.

A final ruling in favour of the Bureau will force the UK government to review regulation around the mass collection of communications data.

Rosa Curling at Leigh Day says: “Our clients are very pleased that the European Court has decided to expedite their claim. They welcome the court’s decision, which recognises the importance of the issues raised.

“It is crucial the Court urgently considers whether the UK’s legislation adequately protects journalistic sources, material and information.

“The freedom of the press is a crucial requirement in any health democracy and journalists must be able to safeguard their sources, materials and keep information confidential until such time as they consider it appropriate and/or safe to publish.

“Edward Snowden has revealed that such safeguards and protections are not currently in place in the UK and our clients are urging the European Court to intervene in this matter as a matter of priority.”

Gavin Millar QC from Matrix Chambers, Counsel for the Bureau, said:

“The security and intelligence services still refuse to confirm or deny facts - even of the most general nature - which are relied on human rights challenges to their conduct.

“Those bringing such challenges have to plead scraps of publicity about their covert activities. BIJ challenged the mass harvesting of confidential journalistic material in this way - relying on newspaper disclosures about Tempora so as to apply to Strasbourg.

“These new revelations support our contention that the digital communications of public interest journalists are being harvested and are of great interest to the state. These are Orwellian times.

“The state should no longer be allowed to claim an absolute right to silence on such fundamental matters. It must start to admit where it cannot deny.”