Following his arrest on 28 January 2021, journalist Andy Aitchison has today been refused charges, had his bail conditions cancelled, and his equipment returned to him.
Mr Aitchison, a freelance photographer, was covering a protest at Napier Barracks in Folkestone when he was arrested on suspicion of criminal damage, and had his journalistic material confiscated. He had simply attended the demonstration to document it as a member of the press, and publicise the treatment of asylum seekers who are currently being housed in the former military barracks.
A few hours later, police attended his home address to arrest him and carry out a search for his mobile phone, camera, and memory card of the images. Despite informing the police that he was a freelance photographer and showing them his National Union of Journalists (NUJ) card, Mr Aitchison was arrested and his journalistic material seized. He was detained for a number of hours, interviewed, and released on conditional bail not to go to Napier Barracks.
Bindmans LLP was instructed by the NUJ and immediately wrote to the police requesting the return of Mr Aitchison’s phone and memory card, his journalistic material and his release from bail. As was highlighted in our correspondence, the seizure of said material was unlawful as journalistic equipment is protected by PACE 1984 and Convention Rights – Article 10, the right to freedom of expression. The importance of journalists being able to carry out their reporting activity during the pandemic when regulations arising from the pandemic have restricted the public from participating in protest was also underlined.
Bindmans Partner, Kate Goold, who represented Andrew Aitchison, said:
It is of great concern when the police arrest journalists and photographers for simply doing their job and this arrest has a chilling effect on press freedom. Public interest journalists are essential to our democracy to document and publicise events as they unfold, especially during Covid-19 lockdown when the public cannot witness such protests themselves. Through the support of the NUJ, we were able to act swiftly to ensure that Mr Aitchison had no further action taken and his phone and memory card returned, without the police viewing this confidential journalistic material.
It is essential that journalists are seen as independent and not as potential evidence gatherers for the police. If, by reporting on public protests, journalists are at risk of arrest and having their equipment seized, this fundamentally undermines and has a damaging effect on free speech and the ability for journalists to report on public interest matters. It also puts their safety at risk.
This has been litigated at length and the Courts have strongly supported the rights of journalists (see Dale farm/Parkinson 2012 and Miranda v SSHD 2016).
Independent journalism, protection of sources and the ability to report public interest stories without fear of arrest is essential in a democratic society.
Mr Aitchison, who was represented by Kate Goold of Bindmans LLP, funded by the NUJ, said:
Today at 11.42am I received a call from the arresting police officer on my case. She said that I had been refused charges as there was no evidence to charge me with criminal damage and that my bail conditions were cancelled. I attended the police station to retrieve my equipment and when asked for ID I again showed my NUJ press card.
Bindmans have provided incredible legal support since they were instructed by the NUJ and I would not have even thought to speak to Bindmans without the NUJ support. Their legal team and in particular Kate Goold has been there at the end of the phone all week to explain my way through the complicated legal system and advise me who to speak to and then writing perfect letters and e-mails with the Police on my behalf. It’s worked, in one week charges have been dropped.
Her advice on what to do next is well thought out and I look forward to continue my case with them in the coming months. Thank you again.
The NUJ also commented on the events of the past two weeks:
The NUJ welcomes the return of the property but remains deeply disturbed by the actions of the Kent police. Our member was treated in an unacceptable manner. The police behaviour should be fully investigated.