Journalists and academics could face jail under ministers' terror crackdown, warns watchdog
Powerful new anti-terror laws could end up jailing people simply for having "inquisitive and foolish minds", a top parliamentary watchdog has warned.
MPs and peers on the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) say there are "serious concerns" that the Government's Counter-Terrorism and Border Security bill risks breaching human rights and criminalising journalists and researchers.
The bill includes a clause that would see people who view terrorist material online three or more times face jail sentences of up to 15 years.
The Government has said the plan will update terror laws for the age of streaming services like YouTube - but the committee warns it could stifle legitimate use of the internet.
The JCHR says: "Whilst we recognise the need to adapt to new technologies and practices and the need to bridge the current gap between downloading and streaming material, there is a clear risk that this clause would catch academics, journalists and researchers, as well as those who view such material out of curiosity or foolishness without any intent to act upon the material in a criminal manner."
The committee dismisses the planned terror law's inclusion of a "reasonable excuse" defence, urging ministers to spell out plainly "what constitutes legitimate activity".
They also savage plans to make it a criminal offence to publish images online which suggest someone is a member or supporter of a terrorist organisation.
The group says that clause - which could cover somebody being pictured with the flag of terror group Isis - strikes "the wrong balance between security and liberty" and "risks a huge swathe of publications being caught, including historical images and journalistic articles".
But the fresh warnings have already been dismissed by ministers, with Security Minister Ben Wallace vowing to press ahead.
He said: "This Government does not agree with the committee’s conclusions in respect to human rights concerns. Its conclusions are misplaced and wrong.
"After the spate of terrorist attacks of last year and the deadly nerve agent attack this year, our intelligence services and police made the case for an update of existing legislation and some new powers to tackle the real and significant threat this country faces from terrorism and hostile states.
"We carefully considered the request and agreed to act so as to keep the public safe. The committee couldn’t be more out of touch with the very real threat to life we all now face."
However, Harriet Harman - the Labour MP who chairs the committee - promised to act to change the bill before it becomes law.
"The Government has got an important job to keep us safe from terrorism," she said.
"But it must also safeguard human rights. The committee believes that this bill goes too far and will be tabling amendments in both the Commons and the Lords."