British police arrested and detained three journalists covering a climate protest earlier this week, raising concerns the country’s press freedom was under threat.
Police officers in the county of Hertfordshire in southern England, LBC radio reporter arrested Charlotte Lynch on a bridge over a public motorway near London on Tuesday while covering nearby protests by climate group Just Stop Oil.
In an interview with LBC on Thursday, Hertfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner David Lloyd admitted police “made a mistake” in arresting Lynch, adding that arresting journalists “doesn’t sound right”. .
In a series of Twitter posts, Lynch said they handcuffed her “almost immediately” despite showing police their press credentials. Police confiscated her phone and searched her twice before holding her in a cell without questioning for five hours, she said.
“It was absolutely terrifying to be in a cell with a pad for a bed in one corner and a metal toilet in the other. I was just doing my job,” Lynch said. “It is also frightening what this means for freedom of the press. It was obvious that I’m a reporter,” she added.
Lynch said LBC Police arrested her on Wednesday on suspicion of “conspiracy to commit a public nuisance”. She was eventually released without further action.
The incident comes just a day after documentary filmmaker Rich Felgate and photographer Tom Bowles, who were also covering the Just Stop Oil protests, were arrested by Hertfordshire Police on a bridge.
Protesters began climbing scaffolding above London’s outer motorway on Monday to demand the government halt all new oil and gas projects, prompting several arrests of activists.
Bowles said so in an interview with TalkTV on Thursday he and Felgate were also arrested on suspicion of “conspiracy to incite public nuisance”. Hertfordshire Police told CNN Business on Thursday that both Bowles and Felgate were released with no further action.
Felgate, who posted a video of him arrest Twitter, said he and Bowles were held for 13 hours despite offering to show his press card identifying him as a member of the media. The cards are recognized by the Council of National Police Chiefs.
“I’m obviously a member of the press, I have cameras, and I’m in a public place,” Felgate says in the video.
Police questioned both men during detention and asked Felgate for the code to access his phone, he told LBC in a statement interview on Tuesday.
Bowles said on a Tuesday tweet that three police officers arrived at his home at 11 p.m. on Monday, woke his wife and daughter and ransacked his home. He told TalkTV that he is taking legal action against the police.
Hertfordshire Police said in a statement on Wednesday that their priority was “ensuring public safety, as well as the safety of officers and protesters”, adding that their officers were facing “very difficult circumstances” when they tried to clear demonstrators from streets.
However, police said they “acknowledge the concerns over the recent arrests of journalists” and that “additional measures are now being taken to ensure legitimate media outlets can do their jobs”.
Those measures include a requirement for officers to get approval from a supervisor to arrest anyone claiming to be a journalist, police said.
Police have launched an independent investigation into the incident.
The arrests were condemned by journalists’ unions, human rights groups and politicians. concerned that they constitute a serious infringement of press freedom.
“No reporter or other bona fide newsgatherer should fear being put in a cell for doing their job,” Michelle Stanistreet, secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists, said in a statement.
Jun Pang, the policy and campaigns officer for Liberty, a British human rights group, told CNN Business that the police action “impacted fundamental rights and freedoms of the press”.
“We all want to live in a country where the press is free to report on stories in the public interest,” Pang said.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also said on Wednesday that Sunak “strongly believes in standing up for the press”.
“[Sunak] said journalists should be able to go about their day-to-day business and hold people accountable,” the spokesman added.
The concerns add to fears that new police laws will limit Britons’ right to protest more generally.
The Public Order Bill, approved by UK MPs last month, would make it easier for police officers to stop and search protesters and ban demonstrations expected to seriously disrupt the public.
The bill still has to pass the upper house of parliament before it can come into force.
— Eve Brennan and Xiaofei Xu contributed coverage.