Journalist, Terrorist. What's the Difference?

Not much, in the eyes of Britain's highest court.

Image: Agencia Brasil

Journalists can legally be held just like suspected terrorists for carrying documents through airport security—at least in the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, the UK’s highest court said that the August detainment of David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, was lawful. Miranda was held and questioned at Heathrow Airport for nine hours after he’d arrived in the United Kingdom carrying a cache of encrypted and classified documents given to Greenwald by Edward Snowden.

The judges, led by Lord Justice Laws, said that Miranda’s detainment was “an indirect interference with press freedom” but said that, in this instance, it was warranted because of national security concerns.

That’s not terribly good news for journalists, and let’s be clear—there’s no such thing as an “indirect” interference with press freedom. It either interferes with it, or it doesn't. There’s nothing “indirect” about detaining a journalist, seizing his laptop, DVDs, USB sticks, and cell phone, and holding him for nine hours, especially when you do it under legislation called the “Terrorism Act of 2000.” 

At the time, Greenwald said it was “obviously designed to send a message of intimidation to those of us working journalistically on reporting on the NSA and its British counterpoint, the GCHQ” and called it a “rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism.”

The ruling essentially gives security officials carte blanche to detain any journalists they suspect of carrying documents the government doesn’t want them to be carrying. 

Journalists, as a whole, are generally a bit too self-important—yeah, the TSA probably does not care about early leaks of city council memo notes. But even if you’re not a national security reporter or obsessed with taking down the NSA, you’re bound to eventually obtain some things someone thinks you maybe shouldn’t have. Sources send around internal documents, a lawyer passes along some evidence, you download something from the Internet that is quickly deleted. And once you get those documents, you hold onto them for dear life—you’ll never know when something from a few years back will come in handy.

That’s part of the reason why it’s so important that law enforcement doesn’t, you know, seize all of it because they’re, personally, unhappy with what you’re up to. The United Kingdom doesn’t have the strict constitutional protections for a free press like the United States does, but this is by no means a problem limited to the UK. "Journalist" is, now more than ever, a suspicious occupation for the TSA and other airport security. On a random search on my way home from South America last summer, airport security strongly intensified its questioning of me after I told them I was in Colombia working on stories. The agent Googled my name and asked me who I had met with during my time there.

That's one, admittedly minor, anecdotal instance of what can happen to people in a profession that regards itself as the fourth branch of government. But it's by no means rare. Between October 1, 2008 and April, 2010, the Department of Homeland Security detained roughly 3,000 American citizens at the border and performed electronic device searches on them. Some of them were everyday citizens, others were reporters or filmmakers. When there are no repercussions on government, or when warrantless electronic searches and seizures are upheld in court, you better believe there’s going to be a chilling effect on free expression. 

Some aspiring journalists may look at what Greenwald has accomplished in the last year and see that he’s shot himself to international prominence, started a major, important new site, and has shined some pretty important light on notoriously shady agencies. Others might look at the fact that his partner was briefly considered a terrorist and consider that he’s got Congressmen calling for his arrest, and decide it’s not worth it to follow in his footsteps. Who could blame them?