Sunday, February 08, 2009

Photography and terrorism

click photo to enlarge
On February 16th the freedom of photographers in the UK will be further curtailed when the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 becomes law. This legislation allows for the arrest, imprisonment (for up to 10 years) or fine of anyone who elicits or attempts to elicit information about a member of the armed forces, an intelligence officer or a constable, which is likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or publishes or communicates such information. Now you might think that protection of this sort is desirable for those in the front line of the so-called "war on terror". And so would I if I felt that would be how the legislation would be used. The problem is that the drafting is sufficiently loose for it to be used by the police to prevent photography of any officer in any circumstances.

In recent years a number of amateur photographers have been illegally harrassed by the police, PCSOs, security guards and others when photographing within the bounds of the existing law - photographing buildings, scenes in the street, at railway stations etc - and have been questioned, compelled to stop, made to erase images, and forced to move on. Journalists have been arrested, had cameras snatched, and their view deliberately blocked when photographing demonstrations as they are legally entitled to do so, and as society would wish them to do in the interests of free speech. The legislation that will soon come into force will give the police and others the power to prevent people taking photographs in which they feature, even incidentally. Given the well-documented disregard for the present law exhibited by some who are charged with upholding it, can we have any faith that this extension to police powers will be used as those who framed the legislation intended? Even though the Act allows that anyone charged can use the defence of "reasonable excuse", it seems highly unlikely that this will prevent it being used to strengthen the position of those in authority with an unreasonable fear of photography. And anyway, should photographers be put in the position of having to prove their innocence for simply pursuing a hobby or, in the case of journalists, exercising what should be a basic freedom of the press in any mature democracy?

I can see that some will want to give the benefit of the doubt to the legislators and law enforcement officers, and will trust that the new law will be used as intended. Others will think that my views are unneccesarily alarmist. However, I see this as a further erosion of essential freedoms that many private individuals, politicians, civil servants, academics, and others are beginning to question more strongly. Today I've written to the Home Secretary deploring the scope and likely use of this legislation. I've also asked her to give me two things: firstly, a written assurance that this legislation will not be used to limit my freedom as an amateur photographer to photograph anything within a public place, and a paragraph that I can carry to present to anyone who tries to stop me pursuing my hobby, saying that this Act cannot be used for that purpose. Even before I wrote I had little faith that I'll receive those assurances, and, if past experience in contacting the Home Office is any guide, I'll have to ask more than once to get a specific response rather than mollifying waffle. However, I do it in the knowledge that doing nothing doesn't change anything, and doing something might. I urge you to to do something too.

Here are some links about this issue:

Counter Terrorism Act 2008 (Para 76 is the relevant section)
Jail for photographing police? British Journal of Photography article, 28 January 2009
Photographers react to British PM's message Amateur Photographer 13 January 2009
Home Secretary green lights restrictions on photography British Journal of Photography article, 1 July 2008

So, given that this blog is about my "photographs and reflections" is there any link between today's image and what's written above? Not really, except that the growing curtailment of freedom in the UK may well lead to photographers taking more images of this sort that don't "infringe someone's liberty", don't offend someone's delicate sensibilities, can't be misconstrued in any way, and have no potential to be used for terrorist purposes!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 150mm (300mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/160
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On