Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Were Police seeking Charlie Hebdo readers?

An article published by The Guardian 10th February reports that in at least three Police Force Areas some newsagents have been contacted regarding sales of the Charlie Hebdo magazine published in the immediate aftermath of the murders in Paris - see earlier post Charlie Hebdo - Freedom of Expression.  Officers in Wiltshire, Wales and Cheshire have approached retailers of the magazine, it has emerged, as concerns grew about why police were attempting to trace UK-based readers of the French satirical magazine.

The article indicates that there was some form of intelligence sharing within the Police Service following "an assessment of potentially vulnerable communities."  The article also states that, in Presteigne (Wales), the wife of a newsagent was questioned for 30 minutes by a detective and a PCSO and that the questioners sought information (reportedly not revealed) as to who had purchased the magazines.   "A Dyfed-Powys police spokeswoman declined to say why officers sought the names of Charlie Hebdo readers but said: “Following the recent terrorism incidents, Dyfed Powys police have been undertaking an assessment of community tensions across the force area.  Visits were made to newsagents who were maybe distributing the Charlie Hebdo magazine to encourage the newsagent owners to be vigilant. We can confirm the visits were only made to enhance public safety and to provide community reassurance.”

It is unclear whether the Police were concerned with the possibility of "hate crime" about which I posted back in January 2012.  The Crown Prosecution Service publishes on its website a considerable number of items relating to "hate crime" and this page is of particular interest from which the following is extracted:

"Racist and religious crime

We regard a racist or religiously motivated incident as:

Any incident which is perceived to be racist or religiously motivated by the victim or any other person.
An offence is racially or religiously aggravated if:
  • at the time of committing the offence, or immediately before or after doing so, the offender demonstrates towards the victim of the offence hostility based on the victim's membership (or presumed membership) of a racial or religious group; or
  • the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility towards members of a racial or religious group based on their membership of that group.
Certain offences, including assault, harassment, criminal damage and public order offences, can be prosecuted specifically as racially or religiously-aggravated offences.

With any other offence where there is evidence of racial or religious aggravation, the defendant faces a harsher sentence than if he or she were found guilty of a non-racial or religious crime.

Further information relating to racist and religious crime is available on this website in the Prosecution Policy and Guidance/Other Guidance/Racist and Religious Crime section."

What might have happened had a newsagent provided a list of customers?  One possibility is that the individuals might have had a visit from the Police and a "talking to" about possible "hate crime."  (It would not be a first time).  Another possibility is that the individuals might have been put under some form of surveillance in case they stepped out of line in some way.  

For my part, I do not like Charlie Hebdo and I have not and do not read it.  Many of its cartoons were (and maybe still are), to say the least, tasteless and insensitive.  Nevertheless, freedom of expression is a very vital right in a democracy.  It is NOT an absolute right but restrictions to it must be clearly justifiable on one of the grounds in the European Convention on Human Rights and such restrictions must be properly defined in law.  The terrible Charlie Hebdo events in Paris were major news and the publication of a special edition in the days following the murders was understandable.  It was also understandable that a lot of individuals might wish to obtain a copy of that edition.  In a free society, that should not make them either a criminal or even a potential suspect.

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