At least eight journalists have been arrested in recent weeks while covering the Just Stop Oil protests. Their press credentials were ignored, the journalists (including an LBC reporter, a documentary filmmaker and a photographer) were detained for hours, fingerprinted and DNA swabbed. Their phones and cameras were confiscated and – in at least one case – a journalist’s home was ransacked.
The reasons for the arrest and detention included “conspiracy to commit a public nuisance,” although journalists took no part in the protests. This is contrary to the policy of the UK College of Policing. The College expressly informs its officers of such media interference in the pursuit of news, noting that “facilitation of frontline media coverage during dynamic operations should be anticipated and planned for”.
So what explains the jailing of reporters in the recent protests – and what are the broader implications? Hertfordshire Police initially said the protests were “fluid and fast-paced” and insisted there were valid grounds for arresting journalists “for questioning to verify their credentials”. But after widespread condemnation from government ministers, Hertfordshire promised an inquiry but also hinted that not all journalists belong to “legitimate media” and argued that those covering the protests are “part of the problem”.
Such harassment of journalists is clearly totally unacceptable: however, to fully understand these incidents, we must put them in their larger context.
Monitoring the highway to climate hell
World leaders have stressed the need for urgent action on climate change. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that without them the world would be on its way to climate hell. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it was morally right for the UK to deliver on its climate pledges at COP27.
Just Stop Oil’s blocking of roads and highways to draw attention to the inaction despite widespread political rhetoric has proved highly controversial. Roadblocks have been alleged to have stopped emergency vehicles and prevented motorists from reaching appointments or funerals. The chaos has prompted some motorists to take the law into their own hands.
Activists recently occupied motorway bridges on the M25 in England, forcing police to stop traffic while they could be removed. The police have a duty to enable peaceful protests, but they must balance the rights of protesters with those of other citizens. While police action to remove protesters may be necessary and proportionate, so are decisions to arrest journalists who have not blocked traffic or obstructed a police operation. The pre-emptive restriction of media access is the hallmark of an authoritarian rather than a democratic state.
We closely monitored police operations during COP26 and found Police Scotland to be responsive to researchers and proactive in engaging with the media. At COP26 there was little confrontation and no more than a handful of arrests. But a year later, there are now serious questions about police responses to climate protests in the UK. The recent arrests must be understood in the light of protest discourses in the press and in parliament.
A hostile environment for protest
In 2021, the Insulate Britain government was granted an injunction against roadblocks, resulting in multiple jail sentences. Similarly, this year politicians from various parties have backed legislation in 2022 to crack down on disruptive or noisy protests. The Public Order Bill (passed by Parliament and currently under consideration by a House of Lords committee) will criminalize cordoning off and “interfering with vital national infrastructure” and “expand control and search powers for … protest-related crimes.” .
The law aims to “give police the tools they need to address dangerous and highly disruptive tactics used by a small minority of protesters to wreak havoc on people going about their daily lives “. At a time when UN chief Guterres says the climate crisis is forcing the world to choose between collective action and collective suicide, UK leaders appear to be double-punching the protesters instead of tackling the causes of global warming.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman railed against the “watchdog-reading, tofu-eating wokerati”; opposition leader Keir Starmer supports “longer sentences for those who stick to roads and highways”; the press makes sensational “eco fanatics” and “eco mobs”. The result is a hostile environment for protest.
Sunak joined those calling for press freedom after the arrests, conveniently forgetting his government’s role in demonizing environmental activists. Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, warned that the bill effectively “delegitimizes protests in the eyes of the police” by portraying activists – and those around them – as troublemakers who need to be controlled. As one journalist put it:
I don’t blame the individual officials. It appears that they are a symptom of a much broader and extremely alarming problem.
Whatever one thinks of Just Stop Oil, the aversion to radical environmentalism among politicians and the media has wider implications. A 2020 report by Oxford University academics described it as having a “deterrent effect” on what both police and the public see as legitimate protests, with serious implications for democracy.
The harassment and imprisonment of journalists doing their jobs shows that the crackdown on dissenters isn’t just for “eco-zealots”: they threaten everyone.
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