Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Jail for photographing police?

Who watches the watchmen? Not you if they have any say about it...

Date: 28 January 2009

The relationship between photographers and police could worsen next month when new laws are introduced that allow for the arrest - and imprisonment - of anyone who takes pictures of officers 'likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism'.

Set to become law on 16 February, the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 amends the Terrorism Act 2000 regarding offences relating to information about members of armed forces, a member of the intelligence services, or a police officer.

The new set of rules, under section 76 of the 2008 Act and section 58A of the 2000 Act, will target anyone who 'elicits or attempts to elicit information about (members of armed forces) ... which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism'.

A person found guilty of this offence could be liable to imprisonment for up to 10 years, and to a fine.

The law is expected to increase the anti-terrorism powers used today by police officers to stop photographers, including press photographers, from taking pictures in public places. 'Who is to say that police officers won't abuse these powers,' asks freelance photographer Justin Tallis, who was threatened by an officer last week.

Tallis, a London-based photographer, was covering the anti-BBC protest on Saturday 24 January when he was approached by a police officer. Tallis had just taken a picture of the officer, who then asked to see the picture. The photographer refused, arguing that, as a press photographer, he had a right to take pictures of police officers.

According to Tallis, the officer then tried to take the camera away. Before giving up, the officer said that Tallis 'shouldn't have taken that photo, you were intimidating me'. The incident was caught on camera by photojournalist Marc Vallee.

Tallis is a member of the National Union of Journalists and the British Press Photographers' Association. 'The incident lasted just 10 seconds, but you don't expect a police officer to try to pull your camera from your neck,' Tallis tells BJP.

The incident came less than a week after it was revealed that an amateur photographer was stopped in Cleveland by police officers when taking pictures of ships. The photographer was asked if he had any terrorism connections and told that his details would be kept on file.

A Cleveland Police spokeswoman explained: 'If seen in suspicious circumstances, members of the public may well be approached by police officers and asked about their activities. Photography of buildings and areas from a public place is not an offence and is certainly not something the police wish to discourage. Nevertheless, in order to verify a person's actions as being entirely innocent, police officers are expected to engage and seek clarification where appropriate.'

The statement echoes the Prime Minister's answer to a petition signed by more than 5700 people. Gordon Brown reaffirmed, last week, that the police have a legal right to restrict photography in public places.

'There are no legal restrictions on photography in public places. However, the law applies to photographers as it does to anybody else in a public place. So there may be situations in which the taking of photographs may cause or lead to public order situations or raise security considerations,' Downing Street says.

'Each situation will be different and it would be an operational matter for the officer concerned as to what action if any should be taken in respect of those taking photographs. Anybody with a concern about a specific incident should raise the matter with the chief constable of the relevant force.'

However, Liberty, which campaigns on human rights, has decried the excessive use of stop-and-search powers given to police officers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act. The group's legal director, James Welch, said the powers were used too widely.

In December, freelance press photographer Jess Hurd was detained for more than 45 minutes after she was stopped while covering the wedding of a couple married in Docklands.

She was detained under section 44 of the Terrorism Act. Her camera was forcefully removed from her, and while she showed her press card, three police officers insisted on viewing the footage she had taken.

'Any officer who suspects an offence has been committed has the right to detain you,' a Metropolitan press officer told BJP at the time. 'Because you are a press photographer does not preclude you from being stopped under section 44 of the Terrorism Act. If the officer thought the photographer acted suspiciously, and especially if it was in a sensitive place, he had a right to detain and question the photographer.'

The tension between police officers and photographers is not limited to the UK. Last week, Icelandic police fired pepper spray on photojournalists as they were covering protests in front of the country's parliament building.

Kristjan Logason, a press photographer in Iceland, tells BJP that he was targeted along with other press photographers. 'The Icelandic police systematically tried to remove photographers by pepper-spraying them,' he says.


The photographers were covering a protest in front of the Althing parliament building in the capital Reykjavik. Iceland's financial system collapsed in October under the weight of billions of dollars of foreign debts incurred by its banks.

Already seven photographers have come forward as having been targetted by the Icelandic Police.