Journalists like making and breaking news stories and the satisfaction of seeing your words in print with the all-important byline attached to the story is undeniable, writes journalist and human rights campaigner Yvonne Ridley.
But for the majority of us we do not like becoming the news and the uncomfortable look on David Miranda’s face as he arrived back home in Brazil to the waiting media illustrated the point.
Way back in 2001 when I was arrested and held by the Taliban for 10 days I was also thrust into the limelight and it is not a position most journalists seek or desire, so I felt a great deal of sympathy for Miranda and his partner, The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald.
The former was detained for nine hours at Heathrow Airport in London where he was questioned under draconian UK anti-terrorism laws; in particular the notorious Schedule 7. His laptop, mobile phone and other electronic equipment was confiscated.
But while I felt for Miranda and his dreadful experience, I also thought that now, at last, everyone would be able to see what happens at the hands of police who feel they don’t have to answer to anyone and what happens when the state morphs in to a vindictive force.
Muslims and Schedule 7
For Miranda’s experience was not a one-off, in fact it happens on such a regular basis in airports throughout the UK for a certain group of people … welcome to the world of travelling Muslims who are now so used to getting the “Miranda Treatment” that it is often regarded by them as the norm.
Sadly the media has never questioned this style of targeting because if the person is a Muslim then in some media corners there’s an overwhelming attitude of “no smoke without fire.”
The truth is every year there are hundreds of Mirandas but they rarely make headlines because their names are Mohammed, Bilal, Khadija and Omar. Their targeting under counter-terrorism legislation is largely unjustified but Schedule 7 detentions have become almost routine for many Muslims since the horrific events of 9/11.
Schedule 7 allows an officer to stop, search, question and detain a person travelling through a port, airport or border area without reasonable suspicion and some of the key features include:
* NO right to remain silent
* SUBMITTING to DNA despite absence of hard evidence
* DETENTION for up to 9 hours
The key targets are drawn from the ethnic minority communities and if you walk through these ports sporting a long beard or a hijab it is like a magnet for the attention of some of the officers who clearly have an Islamaphobic agenda. In other words officers look out for key religious symbols especially from the Muslim faith.
I base this on statistics which revealed, for instance, in 2010, 92 per cent of those detained under Schedule 7 were from the black and minority ethnic (BME) groups and 93 per cent of biometrics data also came from BME groups despite them forming only six percent of the population of England and Wales.
Cageprisoners, the independent advocacy group which has championed human rights in the Muslim community by the authorities, has campaigned for years to get the statistics released on those stopped for their religious identity. So far the authorities have refused to release these figures … why? Perhaps this is something campaigning journalists might want to demand now that Schedule 7 has come to their attention.
From its own research Cageprisoners believes more than 40 per cent of Schedule 7 detainees are Muslim although those estimates are reckoned by some to be conservative.
Basically we should all be very concerned by this racial and religious profiling which is being carried out by a few with such Islamaphobic zeal that potentially really dangerous individuals who don’t match the stereotype are falling through the net.
As Miranda discovered – and most Muslims pulled say the same – much of the questioning often has nothing to do with terrorism but is often aggressive, intimidating and oppressive.
In many ways Miranda was lucky when he was able to fly back home to Greenwald; a powerful figure in the media who is now doubly motivated in his mission to expose abuse of power by those who usually hide behind a veil of anonymity. But for most Muslims, Schedule 7 does not operate in isolation; it is usually just the start of their problems as it provides a convenient door for others in authority to pursue a variety of civil and human rights abuses.
Spying and blackmail
Some Muslims have been pressured or blackmailed into becoming informants. I doubt those who held Miranda would have been so foolish to have gone totally over the top and he is an empowered young man who is aware of his rights. However there are those who aren’t, who are frightened, alienated and open to abuse by police and the intelligence services.
Cageprisoners outlines such evidence in a hard-hitting report aptly called “The Horn of Africa Inquisition” which highlights and details the experiences of a group of Somalians known as the Kentish Town Youth Workers.
Committed to improving the lives of local youth by volunteering their services at a North London community centre, virtually every one of them was singled out and detained under the ubiquitous Schedule 7 after returning to the UK from overseas. Each one reported how they were intimidated by police and MI5 officers who verballed them into admitting non-existent offences until they capitulated and agreed to spy on the Muslim community.
Ever since I put on a hijab I have found that travelling as a Muslim has its challenges but I am a mouthy individual given to answering back. However on a trip to undertake a documentary in Pakistan a couple of years ago my cameraman was pulled and literally “disappeared” in Heathrow. When he finally was able to make a call he told me to go ahead without him and he was held for several hours until after my flight left.
The next time we were travelling to Libya and he was again stopped but released very quickly when I began tweeting furiously from the departure lounge. On his return, as anticipated, he was pulled again under Schedule 7 and searched but when they asked him for his film and footage he told them he had already handed it over to me. By that time I had gone with the footage intact for a documentary called Lies, Spies & Libya which revealed the full extent of the collusion between the Gaddaffi regime and British intelligence.
Following on from that episode two MI5 agents stopped him in Soho and tried to persuade him to spy for them. He told me when he came home that night as my cameraman is also my husband! They’ve stopped hassling now for the time being because we have a good lawyer and refuse to be intimidated but it can be tough when the authorities decide to become vindictive.
My US journalist visa has been cancelled by the USA Embassy in London without reason and several lawyers letters have been unable to establish the reason so far. I was working on a documentary focussing on the bombing of the Al Shifa medicine factory in Sudan in 1998 by Bill Clinton and had submitted a request to speak to Monica Lewinsky … seems she’s a touchy subject even today.
Ask the Editor of The Guardian about the vindictive nature of the establishment. He recently revealed that a hard drive had been destroyed at the London HQ of the newspaper following the Guardian’s major scoop on the US whistleblower Edward Snowden whose leaks revealed how out-of-control, unchecked surveillance operations are conducted by the USA and UK intelligence agencies.
The intimidation of journalists and whistleblowers has only just begun on both sides of the Atlantic but it will, in my view, be restrained soon because of the power of the pen and the determination of investigative journalists like Greenwald and Miranda.
I just hope that journalists look beyond their own backyard and start to investigate a much larger scandal which goes to the very heart of our freedoms, liberties and democracies. If Muslims and journalists are being targeted today who will it be tomorrow?
Cageprisoners has spearheaded a campaign to expose Schedule 7 for several years and researchers have painstakingly recorded accounts from victims of this vile anti-terror law. Its findings to date can be accessed on this special website www.Schedule7stories.com