Journalists who interviewed “Isis bride” Shamima Begum cannot be compelled to hand over unpublished notes and footage to counter-terrorism investigators, a judge has ruled.
The Met Police had sought an order for material from the Times, Sky News, ITN and the BBC from their conversations with the 19-year-old after she was discovered in Syria earlier this year.
Ms Begum was one of three girls from Bethnal Green, east London, who left the UK aged just 15 in February 2015 and travelled to Syria to join Islamic State.
Within days of her arrival she married a Dutch-born IS fighter, with whom she had three children, although all died in infancy.
She was eventually tracked down – then nine months pregnant with her third child – by Times war correspondent Anthony Loyd in a refugee camp in northern Syria.
Ms Begum, who has since been stripped of her British citizenship, later gave interviews to broadcasters including the BBC, ITN and Sky News.
At a hearing at the Old Bailey last month, lawyers for the Met applied to have unpublished material from these interviews handed to counter-terrorism command under the Terrorism Act 2000.
All of the outlets resisted the application, arguing it would undermine their journalists’ ability to cover foreign conflicts.
Gavin Miller, for Sky, ITN and The Times, said the order would deprive journalists of their neutrality and place them at risk by making them de facto actors of the state.
“Journalists are believed to be neutral observers and it is this neutrality of the press that affords them protection,” he said.
Judge Mark Dennis QC ruled on Wednesday that none of the outlets will be required to hand over any material from the interviews.
He said: “There is no doubt that the initial Times newspaper report was a commendable piece of investigative journalism and represents a significant public interest story which has opened up an important issue for public debate.
“Such journalistic investigation is to be encouraged, however the work of investigative journalists in particular does rely upon trust, confidentiality, protection of journalistic material and sources, their perceived neutrality, and the co-operation of people who are prepared to place their trust in journalists.”
Judge Dennis said that as Ms Begum had spoken openly and knew her words would be published, the threat to journalistic freedom from such an order was not as great as compelling journalists to name a confidential source.
But he added: “Nevertheless, the purported interference remains and has a wider potential impact for journalists and cannot be simply discounted in the face of competing public interest in pursuing the police investigation.”
Although the Met’s application was rejected, Judge Dennis ordered that copies of all the material remain with the firm of solicitors it has been placed with until further order from the court, to prevent it being lost.
Judge Dennis said if Ms Begum were to return to the UK, a fresh application could be considered.
Mr Loyd, who was present for the ruling, told the PA news agency: “I understand the legality and legitimacy of the police investigation, but I totally resent being co-opted into that as a journalist by a police force that would not send officers itself to interview (Ms Begum).
“The police application had a lot of really serious implications to do with press freedom and had a potentially chilling effect.”
Mr Loyd, who has more than 25 years working in conflict zones, said he had never before received a request of this kind from police.
But he said it was “far more right and reasonable” that Ms Begum be investigated by the Met and brought back to the UK as a British citizen than to leave her stateless in a Syrian refugee camp, as is her current situation.
John Battle, head of compliance at ITN, told PA: “It’s a victory for journalism that the judge did not make the order.
“Judge Dennis clearly recognised that the journalism was of the highest public interest obtained in difficult and dangerous circumstances.
“The judge also accepted that journalism relies on the journalist being neutral, independent and sources being respected and this is an important precedent.”
ITN correspondent Rohit Kachroo was among those who interviewed Ms Begum.