By Caroline Colebrook
SEVERAL thousand photographers – amateur and professional – assembled in Trafalgar Square last Saturday to protest at the continuing police use of anti-terrorist laws to stop and arrest just about anyone using a camera in a public place.
Normally Westminster is thronged with tourists and journalists taking pictures of the sights, the famous buildings and the political and show-business comings and goings and events.
Almost everyone is carrying a camera if you count those included in mobile phones and there are thousands of sights worth snapping in central London.
Now they are all at risk of being arbitrarily stopped, questioned and having their cameras confiscated because of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
Since a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, police are not supposed to stop ordinary members of the public, including journalists, going about their business unless there is some reason to suspect they may be terrorists surveying a potential target.
Senior police have acknowledged this and sent memos to the constables on the beat but these memos are being ignored and photographers are still being stopped for taking pictures of sunsets over the river.
Waving placards with the message, “I am a photographer, not a terrorist,” the protesters called for an end to the arbitrary stopping and obstructing of photographers.
“We’re coming together to show solidarity and to show that we won’t be intimidated,” said Jonathan Warren, a freelance photographer and one of the founders of the campaign group.
Warren said he was approached by police a couple of years ago while covering an anti-arms protest.
“I was waiting for the protest to start when I was stopped and searched, even though I had my press card and was an accredited photographer,” Warren said.
“I showed it to the police, and they didn’t believe me. They went through my bag and my pockets,” he said.
Organiser Marc Vallee, a freelance photographer, said: “It’s a common law right to take pictures in public places and we are here to show that.”
Britain’s terrorism laws were dealt a blow last week when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that stop-and-search powers under Section 44 of the Act were a breach of human rights.
The ruling came after lengthy legal fight by two people who were stopped and searched on their way to a London demonstration.
The court found that the “coercive powers” of the anti-terrorism legislation amounted to a clear interference with the right to respect for private life. The Government is appealing the decision, saying the powers are an important tool in the fight against terrorism.
Another founding member of “I’m a photographer, not a terrorist,” freelance photographer Jess Hurd, felt that she too had been unfairly stopped under Section 44.
She said these random checks have affected photographers’ ability to work. “I was stopped last year for 45 minutes covering a traveller wedding,” the freelance photographer said.
“Everyone, if they haven’t been stopped already, knows someone who has been. This is becoming a problem. People stopped over sunsets at St Paul’s, chip shops, roundabouts – it’s getting a bit crazy. “I would personally like a repeal of this law,” Hurd said.
“It’s absolutely outrageous that the terrorism act is being used to stop photographers from doing their job,” said another participant, freelance photographer Adam Woolfitt.
“My message is stop. Leave us alone,” Woolfitt said. “We’ve got a job to do.”
Meanwhile the police in Britain are planning to use unmanned spy drones, of the type that have been deployed in Afghanistan, to routinely monitor protesters, antisocial motorists, agricultural thieves and fly tippers.
The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are produce by BAe Systems for use in war zones. Now the company is producing a modified version for a consortium of Government bodies, led by Kent police.
They are expected to be in use before the 2012 Olympics.
Kent police have told the Civil Aviation Authority, which regulates airspace over the country, that civilian UAVs will greatly extend the Government’s surveillance capacity and “revolutionise policing”.
The plan is being developed by the South Coast Partnership, a Home Office backed project, which is led by the Kent police. Police have discussed selling the surveillance data to private companies.
The first test flights are due to happen later this year.