The Metropolitan Police have issued an extraordinary warning today that anyone viewing or sharing a graphic video of the beheading of a US journalist may be liable for arrest.
In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Scotland Yard said they were examining the video, which shows the murder of freelancer James Foley by an ISIS jihadist with a British accent. The Met warned that "viewing, downloading or disseminating extremist material within the UK may constitute an offence under Terrorism legislation".
Many on social media have suggested this could include journalists who have viewed the video, pointing to the New York Post front page which showed the moment a knife was held to the throat of Foley, who had his head shaved and wore an orange jumpsuit.
The Met are believed to be referring to the Terrorism Act 2006, which would only apply to those "encouraging" the act.
Terrorism Act 2006
Section 2: Dissemination of terrorist publications
(1) A person commits an offence if he engages in conduct falling within subsection (2) and, at the time he does so—
(a) he intends an effect of his conduct to be a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism;
(b) he intends an effect of his conduct to be the provision of assistance in the commission or preparation of such acts; or
(c) he is reckless as to whether his conduct has an effect mentioned in paragraph (a) or (b).
It goes on:
(4) For the purposes of this section matter that is likely to be understood by a person as indirectly encouraging the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism includes any matter which—
(a) glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of such acts; and
(b) is matter from which that person could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated by him in existing circumstances.
The Act says it is a "defence [for a viewer or disseminator].. to show that the [video or publication]... neither expressed his views nor had his endorsement.. [or] that it was clear, in all the circumstances of the conduct, that that matter did not express his views and... did not have his endorsement."
Despite the stern warning from police, several lawyers have cast doubt over the assertion that viewing the video is a crime
Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister at One Crown Office Row, told The Huffington Post UK it was "highly unlikely" that viewing a video of James Foley's beheading would lead to a prosecution: "Under terrorism law it is a crime if a person 'distributes or circulates' a terrorism publication. But they must intend to encourage terrorism directly or indirectly or be reckless as to the consequences of those actions."
Wagner added that it was a defence "if the publication neither expressed the distributor's views nor had his endorsement."
He said, therefore "it would probably be an offence to distribute the video with a very clear endorsement of ISIS, but anything short of that - including viewing the video - is unlikely to be a crime."
"I can understand completely the Metropolitan Police wanting to deter the sharing of this film, but if they are going to threaten people with possible prosecution for a very serious offence for just viewing the material, they really should quote Act and Section, as they have most media lawyers scratching their heads to think what law they are referring to," David Banks, a journalist and media law consultant told HuffPost.
His words were echoed by barrister and Head of Legal blogger Carl Gardner, who said he was "surprised by the suggestion" that watching the video was an offence under the Terrorism Act.
A reporter from The Register rang Scotland Yard to "confess" to having watched the video but was told he did not face arrest. "Having watched the video could be used to help build a case against us, we were told, but this crime alone did not give plods enough evidence to lock the viewer in Belmarsh," the reporter said.
"Distribution is the issue," the spokesman told the Register. "Viewing the video could be taken into consideration if any other information comes to light."
The Communications Act 2003 all makes it an offence to send an electronic communication of a "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character" which could potentially prohibit people from tweeting the video.
Whether legally obliged or not, YouTube is also taking action to remove any video of Foley's murder on its site and has moved to close accounts belonging to terrorist organisations, it said today.
The company, part of Google, spoke after a campaign was launched on Twitter encouraging users not to share videos of the brutal killing by the Islamic State (IS), formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
A YouTube spokesman said this afternoon: "YouTube has clear policies that prohibit content like gratuitous violence, hate speech and incitement to commit violent acts, and we remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users.
"We also terminate any account registered by a member of a designated foreign terrorist organisation and used in an official capacity to further its interests."
Twitter's chief executive Dick Costolo has earlier said the firm was taking action against accounts which spread the video, writing: "We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery. Thank you."
Thousands of people, including celebrities and scores of fellow journalists, took to social media to urge people not to give IS the oxygen of publicity.
Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy said people spreading the video were doing IS's work for it.
Conroy, of Totnes, Devon, who was injured in Homs, Syria, in 2012 by a government artillery strike that killed reporter Marie Colvin, told BBC Radio 5: "In many ways the passing around of these pictures and the videos of James is essentially doing what these people - these murderers - want you to do.
"They want it to go viral, they want as many people in the world to look at it. So in many ways by sharing them and propagating, we fall into their hands. That's the reason why it's such a stage-managed event.
"What happened was stage-managed by people who are very, very media aware and they know too well that nothing can be banned on the internet so these images - the video - will go about."