Police have used special powers under the Terrorism Act to seize the laptop of a Newsnight journalist in a case that has shocked the BBC and freedom of speech campaigners, The Independent reports.
Officers obtained an order from a judge that was served on the BBC and Secunder Kermani, who joined the flagship BBC2 news show early in 2014 and has produced numerous reports on Britons fighting in Syria.
The development has caused alarm among BBC journalists. The editor of Newsnight, Ian Katz said: “While we would not seek to obstruct any police investigation we are concerned that the use of the Terrorism Act to obtain communication between journalists and sources will make it very difficult for reporters to cover this issue of critical public interest.”
A BBC spokesman told The Independent: “Police obtained an order under the Terrorism Act requiring the BBC to hand over communication between a Newsnight journalist and a man in Syria who had publicly identified himself as an ISIS member. The man had featured in Newsnight reports and was not a confidential source”.
Kermani has built a reputation for making contact with Westerners fighting with ISIS and interviewing them online about their motivations.
The seizure of his material has alarmed press freedom organisations. Jo Glanville, director campaign group English PEN, said the current “hysteria” around terrorism was greater than in the aftermath of the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks. “If journalists go near something to do with terrorism the police can use the Terrorism Act  to go after their sources.”
There are also concerns that police may attempt to use the legislation to go after sources of academic research into Islamic extremism. Kings College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation has built a huge data base of Western fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Last year the Newsnight journalist secured an online interview with Jake Bilardi, the Melbourne teenager who died in a suicide attack in Iraq which killed at least 17 people in March.
In a blog posted after Bilardi’s death, Kermani wrote that the Australian had been fast-tracked by ISIS into becoming a suicide bomber. Bilardi told the BBC journalist: “I came here chasing death, I might as well kill as many kuffar as I can.” Kermani asked him if he had thought of the impact his death would have on his family in Australia. “I’ve got a job to do. I didn’t come here to hand out roses and boxes of chocolates,” came the written response.
The journalist has secured a number of interviews with fighters,including one in August 2014 in which a British Pakistani ISIS fighter – called “Awlaki” talked of ISIS beheading its enemies, said he hated the UK and that he would only return to the country to “plant a bomb somewhere”.
The report attracted criticism from the former Security Minister Dame Pauline Neville-Jones. “We can perfectly well be informed about their views and attitudes without giving them access to mainstream media on a corporation that has a reputation to preserve,” she said. “It gives them a degree of access and a status and importance they should not be accorded.”
Kermani spent months developing his contact with Awlaki and told viewers that the jihadi was “softly spoken” in their exchanges. The BBC defended its report saying it “offered insights” into crimes committed by ISIS.
One BBC source told The Independent: “It think it makes it very difficult to do proper reporting in this territory when the cops can come in and get orders for material as easily as they can. The police have the authority to seize anything that they think will be of use to them in a terror investigation and that’s quite a wide net.”