ARTICLE 19 has submitted written evidence to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, urging them to oppose the proposed Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill 2018. The Bill contains new over-broad offences that would criminalise controversial opinions about terrorist groups without intent to cause harm as well as the viewing of terrorist material. If adopted, it would seriously threaten freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, thought and religion of individuals. It would also set a dangerous precedent for broadening terrorism offences in countries such as Turkey or Russia, potentially putting human rights defenders and dissenters at risk.
ARTICLE 19 is particularly concerned about the following:
- Criminalising opinions over actions: clause 1 of the Bill makes it an offence to express an “opinion or belief” that is “supportive” of a terrorist organisation which may recklessly encourage others to support such groups. ARTICLE 19 is very concerned about this provision as it criminalises “supportive” expression by individuals, though they may not intend to encourage support for terrorist groups or cause harm. The term “supportive” is not defined – meaning that it can be interpreted widely, potentially limiting debate where the legitimacy of organisations or merits of their actions are discussed. ARTICLE 19 is particularly worried about the discriminatory impact of the Bill on Muslim communities and that NGOs may get caught in the provision where they defend the rights of alleged members of terrorist organisations.
- Criminalising the publication of an image of an item of clothing: clause 2 further criminalises the publication of an image of an item of clothing or other articles that arouse “reasonable suspicion” that an individual is a supporter of a terrorist organisation. The concern here is that young people who take such pictures and post them online as part of a joke could be prosecuted. We are also concerned that similar provisions could be replicated in less democratic countries, leading to human rights activists and reporters being prosecuted when documenting human rights abuses, as is currently happening in Turkey. More generally, ARTICLE 19 notes that taking a picture of oneself with an ISIS flag in the background is not necessarily proof of an intention to cause harm and commit a terrorist offence.
- Criminalising the viewing of terrorist material online: The Bill would criminalise the viewing and or streaming of terrorist-related material. Clause 3 of the Bill prohibits individuals from viewing material “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism” on three or more occasions and applies whether the person is in control of the material viewed or not. ARTICLE 19 is very worried that this clause will create a chilling effect on those who seek to investigate or conduct research into the ideology of terrorist groups. ARTICLE 19 also believes that the government is misguided in its view that accessing the material three or more times establishes a “pattern of behaviour” rather than spontaneous curiosity, as there may be many reasons for why an individual accesses and views the material multiple times. ARTICLE 19 further believes that individuals should be able to access information about terrorist groups without being perceived as intending to commit a terrorist offence.
Finally, ARTICLE 19 is concerned about the potential increase in the lengths of sentences for a number of existing offences under the Terrorism Act 2000 and Terrorism Act 2006 and their knock-on effect on the new offences outlined in the Bill. In some instances, the term of imprisonment would be increased from 10 to 15 years. In ARTICLE 19’s view, these sentences are too harsh, unnecessary and disproportionate.
If adopted, ARTICLE 19 believes that the Bill would seriously threaten freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, thought and religion. For this reason, we urge the Joint Committee on Human Rights and Public Bill Committee to protect freedom of expression online and reject the Bill’s clauses highlighted above.
Read the full submission.