Laws and Acts
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The UK's terrorism laws are so broad they could be applied to journalists and their supporters, as well as crimes that have nothing to do with terrorism, according to a new report from the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.

David Anderson QC presented his report to Parliament today, and called on ministers to reverse the increasing "creep" of the laws in recent years.

The report focused on the definition of terrorism in the UK, which among other things currently means that someone can be considered a terrorist if they publish material that is considered to endanger life or to pose a health risk to the public. This could have legitimate purposes, perhaps in the case of a radical cleric calling for violence, or someone distributing plans on how to manufacture bombs.

But the problem is that the law isn't specific enough, meaning that it can be applied to cases that do not have anything to do with terrorism. Anderson makes reference to section 1(1)(b) of the Terrorism Act 2000, which states, "In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where the use or threat is designed to influence the government [or an international governmental organisation] or to intimidate the public or a section of the public."

That may sound reasonable, but upon closer inspection it's quite wide-reaching, and the report highlights that in other countries, a "terrorist" under this section must additionally have the intention of coercing or intimidating the government. There is concern that this broader definition gives police and the legal system much greater powers where they are not necessary or appropriate.

"They give too much power to individual police officers, and to the Government," Anderson said in a press release. "They make people more cautious than they need to be in what they say and what they write."

Anderson uses the example of David Miranda to illustrate the discussion. Miranda, who is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the main journalist behind the NSA revelations, was detained for nine hours at Heathrow airport while carrying sensitive information under a terrorism law. A ruling from three high court judges later deemed the detention lawful.

Anderson, whose job is to keep terrorism laws in check, did not say whether or not he thinks Miranda should have been arrested, but questioned whether it was legitimate to use a terrorism law for such a purpose.

In his report, he claimed that the law could even be applied to someone who publishes an objection to vaccination, on the basis that could pose a risk to public health. It's a worrying stance, but surely not terrorism.

The report also suggests that hate crimes, such as a racist individual attacking a neighbour, should not qualify because they are not supposed to intimidate the government or public at large (though they are obviously a serious crime nonetheless). Under current laws, such an incident could be labeled as terrorism.

"The public accepts special terrorism laws so long as they are used only when necessary," Anderson said. "But they can currently be applied to journalists and bloggers, to criminals who have no concern other than their immediate victim, and to those who are connected with terrorism only at several removes."

Anderson made some recommendations in the report, the most important being to reign in the legal definition of terrorism, so that it applies only to those that intend "to coerce, compel or intimidate a Government or section of the public."

"This is not a criticism of Ministers, prosecutors or police - who as a rule exercise their remarkably broad discretions with care and restraint," Anderson said. "But it is time Parliament reviewed the definition of terrorism, to avoid the potential for abuse and to cement public support for special powers that are unfortunately likely to be needed for the foreseeable future."