Police have used special powers from the counter-terrorism laws in order to seize a laptop that belongs to a journalist from BBC Newsnight, it has emerged.
The BBC and Secunder Kermani, who joined the broadcaster’s flagship current affairs programme last year and has reported extensively on UK-born jihadis, were the target of an order which officers obtained from a judge under the Terrorism Act.
Police sought the order to read communications between Kermani and a man in Syria who had publicly identified himself as a member of Islamic State and who had featured in Newsnight reports.
The editor of Newsnight, Ian Katz, said on Wednesday: “While we would not seek to obstruct any police investigation we are concerned that the use of the Terrorism Act to obtain communication between journalists and sources will make it very difficult for reporters to cover this issue of critical public interest.”
Journalists and press freedom campaigners criticised the seizure of the laptop, which is understood to have taken place earlier this year.
Jo Glanville, director of the campaign group English PEN, told the Independent there was “hysteria” around terrorism which was greater than in the aftermath of the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks.
She added: “If journalists go near something to do with terrorism the police can use the Terrorism Act  to go after their sources.”
A BBC spokesman said: “Police obtained an order under the Terrorism Act requiring the BBC to hand over communication between a Newsnight journalist and a man in Syria who had publicly identified himself as an IS member. The man had featured in Newsnight reports and was not a confidential source.”
Orders obtained under the Terrorism Act leave journalists with little or no comeback when police use them to seek access to material. By contrast, a public interest defence has been used in the past to contest attempts by the police to gain access to information using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
David Miranda, the partner of the former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, is preparing to appeal against a ruling that he was lawfully detained at Heathrow airport under counter-terrorism powers.
Three high court judges concluded last year that Miranda’s detention at Heathrow under schedule 7 of the Terrorism 2000 Act in the summer of 2013 was legal, proportionate and did not breach European human rights protections of freedom of expression.
The judgment stated that Miranda, a Brazilian national, was stopped in transit between Berlin and Rio after meeting the film-maker Laura Poitras. He had been carrying encrypted files, including an external hard drive containing 58,000 highly classified UK intelligence documents, “in order to assist the journalistic activity of Greenwald”.