Journalist or Terrorist? How “free” is the British press?

Dilly Hussain questions whether political journalists are at risk of being prosecuted under UK anti-terror laws.   

Whilst studying my NCTJ in print journalism, we were taught that the three fundamental principles of the free press were: to account those in power and authority, to educate and inform the masses, and to remain impartial at all times.

The reality is that in a climate of never-ending injustices, be it in the Middle East, Africa or here in the UK, there is a fine line between political activism and journalism. Most, if not all journalists, have an ideological attachment which reflects in the way they report news, no matter how much they claim “impartiality”.

In fact, I would go as far as saying that there is no such thing as “impartial” news, whether its prominent bloggers or big media outlets like the BBC, Fox News, Sky News, RT, France24 or Al Jazeera. Journalists choose a specific angle which tows the editorial line of their employers by cunningly expressing their policies with the selective manipulation of “facts”.

A prime example of “political journalism” is the war coverage of Syria and the recent siege of Gaza. Superpowers and their regional proxies will fund their propaganda machines to label who the freedom fighters and terrorists are, which government they deem to be legitimate or illegitimate- to meet their political agenda.

Britain’s definition of “terrorism”

Now, you must be wondering where this is leading to? David Anderson QC, the official reviewer of counter-terrorism law said Britain had some of the broadest anti-terror legislation in the western world, which gave police and prosecutors the power to criminalise political journalists. In his annual report which was published on Tuesday 22 July, Anderson gave three examples of how terror laws were too widely drawn. They included “actions aimed at influencing governments”, hate crime and what he called the “penumbra of terrorism”.

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On “influencing governments”, Anderson said Britain’s laws treated politically motivated publication of material thought to endanger life and creates a serious risk to the health and safety of the public as a terrorist act if it was done for the purpose of “influencing the government.”

He added: “This means political journalists and bloggers are subject to the full range of anti-terrorism powers if they threaten to publish, prepare to publish something that the authorities think may be dangerous to life, public health or public safety.”

Anderson’s review found that Britain’s anti-terror legislation was extremely problematic; it doesn’t only criminalise journalism, but editors and readers as well. Mike Harris from The Independent highlighted in a recent article, “Once published, the possession of an article that falls foul of this broadly worded law could land you in prison for up to 15 years. It’s safer carrying heroin on you than the written word. Helping prepare the article would carry a life sentence. If you encouraged the writing of a similar blog, you’d face a 7 year sentence.”

Journalist or terrorist?

This sounds crazy, right? Well it’s not, these draconian laws are firmly in place and journalists and readers alike can become victims of the government’s ambiguous definition of terrorism. The Orwellian state censorship of the “free press” raises two questions: how “free” is the media industry in Britain, and are journalists able to be politically active without fearing imprisonment if they hold the government to account?

Al Jazeera journalists were imprisoned on terrorism charges for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al Jazeera journalists were imprisoned on terrorism charges for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The answer to the first question is – not free at all. What many of us believe to be the uncensored free press in a liberal democracy is in fact a farce. Anderson’s findings illustrate that when you scratch beneath the surface, there isn’t much difference between the British government’s definition of “promoting terrorism” and the Egyptian regime imprisoning Al Jazeera journalists for allegedly supporting the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, whose organisation has been outlawed as terrorists.

As a Muslim, I see my commitment to journalism as a form of worship. The masses rely on journalists to report the truth and what a great responsibility we have in influencing public opinion. I comment on political issues on Facebook and Twitter every day, which is accessible to the general public… and the MI5. I criticise the British government for its disastrous foreign policy in the Middle East and its domestic anti-terror laws, which I believe is the main catalyst behind the radicalisation of Muslims.

During the Arab Spring, the ongoing Syrian revolution and now the war in Gaza, I find myself to be more of a political activist than an “impartial” journalist because I do not see how I can “sit on the fence” when injustices are taking place right before my eyes. Am I at risk of being criminalised for mixing my political views and how I report news? If so, then every blogger, editor, newspaper and news channel is guilty of this and we must question whether the concept of “free press” even exists in Britain.


This article was first published on the Huffington Post.

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