Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Britain becoming a 'police state'

Britain is edging ever closer to a police state. This isn’t the assessment from Human Rights Watch or Liberty but from the former head of MI5. Stella Rimington has made headlines in much of Britain’s press today saying that Britain is in danger of giving terrorists just what they want. She warns that the erosion of our freedoms as a result of a legislative blitz leaves us all with a feeling that we live "in fear and under a police state". It is not the first time Dame Stella has spoken out against the undermining of our freedoms. She has warned that ID cards would be "absolutely useless" unless they could be made impossible to forge, while also arguing forcefully against the proposal to allow detention without charge for 42 days [BBC / Daily Telegraph]. Her warning comes as new laws threaten photographers’ rights.
Photography has been under threat for some time following the terrorist attacks in the US on 9/11. Authorities have even passed laws that prevent photography citing that such acts could pose a risk of terrorist attacks. This week in Britain a new law came into force that effectively makes the photographing of police officers illegal. Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act states that anyone found "eliciting, publishing or communicating information" relating to members of the armed forces, intelligence services and police officers, which is "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism" may be arrested. A conviction could lead to 10 years imprisonment and a fine. Number 10 released a statement in which it said, “there may be situations in which the taking of photographs may cause or lead to public order situations, inflame an already tense situation, or raise security considerations”. But professional and amateur photographers alike are questioning the motives of the new laws. Leo Murray, a spokesman for climate change campaign group Plane Stupid, raised his concern at a recent protest outside Scotland Yard. “If we couldn't film they [the police] could act with impunity, they could just mete out violence with the confidence that nobody would find out” he told the BBC. Professional news photographers have been the most outspoken at the new law which many say will make their job all the more difficult.

Train spotters have been questioned and those photographing trains have even been arrested. In New York this week Robert Taylor was arrest by police citing “unauthorized photography, disorderly conduct/unreasonable voice and impeding traffic”. The “unauthorized photography” charge, which does not even exist on the statute books, was subsequently dropped, but the case highlights how normal everyday activities can lead the ordinary citizen into a serious brush with the law [pdnonline].

Many ordinary citizens have been harassed for taking photographs even at public events where taking pictures is common. Amateur photographer Phil Smith was challenged by police while taking pictures during a Christmas lights turning on event in Ipswich last year. He was subject to a stop and search and told to delete pictures from his camera [BBC]. It is a situation that has concerned some Members of Parliament. Austin Mitchell MP has tabled a motion in the Commons that has drawn on cross-party support from 150 other MPs, calling on the Home Office and the police to educate officers about photographers' rights [amateur photographer]. But the passing of Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act has effectively quashed any effort to protect any rights photographers might have.

Last year the the Metropolitan Police launched a poster campaign asking members of the public to report photographers that “seem odd” [BBC]. Stewart Gibson of the Bureau of Freelance Photographers says the concern surrounding photography has increased over many years. "There's a great deal of paranoia around but the police are on alert for anything that vaguely resembles terrorism. It's difficult because the more professional a photographer, paradoxically, the more likely they are to be stopped or questioned. If people were using photos for terrorism purposes they would be using the smallest camera possible."

The threat cited by authorities is that photographs may be useful to someone planning a terrorist attack. But while there may be some logic to this argument, the facts simply do not stand up to scrutiny. While photography may be carried out by terrorists in movie plots, in the real world there are few recorded instances. The 9/11 terrorists didn't photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn't photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber did not photograph anything. Neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs are not being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. Even the IRA was not known for its photography.
If the letter of the law was rigorously followed, with regards ‘materials’ likely to be ‘useful to a terrorists’, it would not be photographs that should be seized. Instead it would by maps, from the humble tube map of the London underground to the Ordinance Survey maps that show far more detail than some photographs ever could. The internet would of course need to be shut down since there is far too much information ‘likely to be useful to a terrorist’ available online. Libraries would need to dispense of their encyclopaedias and science and chemistry education classes in schools and colleges would need to be halted for the fear of teaching any budding terrorist bomb making skills [ / The Guardian].
It is not just photography and civil liberties that are under threat; it is reason and common sense itself. Meanwhile instead of defeating terrorism, the authorities are playing into the terrorists’ hands by disposing of the freedoms they say they’re trying to protect.

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