London • In an unusual warning, Europe's top human rights organization said Wednesday that Britain's reaction to the exposure of the United States' vast international surveillance programs had potentially troubling consequences for free expression.
Using language usually reserved for authoritarian holdouts in Eastern Europe or the Caucuses, the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe asked British authorities to explain why they ordered the destruction of computer equipment held by the Guardian newspaper the publication at the center of the revelations and the detention of a reporter's partner at London's Heathrow Airport.
"These measures, if confirmed, may have a potentially chilling effect on journalists' freedom of expression as guaranteed by ... the European Convention on Human Rights," Secretary General Thorbjoern Jagland said in an open letter to British Home Secretary Theresa May.
Britain's Home Office declined to comment on the letter late Wednesday, but U.K. officials have previously justified the detention of David Miranda the partner of Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald on the grounds that he was believed to be carrying classified documents which could be useful to terrorists.
The Council of Europe, a separate entity from the EU, runs the European Court of Human Rights, which enforces the rights code signed by the council's 47 member states. The watchdog body regularly intervenes on human rights issues across the continent, but the language deployed in the letter was more familiar from council communications to countries with shaky records on the rule of law.
Council spokesman Daniel Hoeltgen said the words "chilling effect" had previously been used in reference to situations in Turkey and Azerbaijan.
"Rarely has there been the case that we've expressed concern over a Western state," he said in a telephone interview. "The bottom line is, we have to have the same standards."
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also defended the decision to order the destruction of several of the Guardian's hard drives last month, saying the data could have seriously damaged national security if it had to fallen into the wrong hands.
Hoeltgen posed a rhetorical question: What would have happened had a journalist's partner been detained in Moscow, or if a Russian newspaper had had its hard drives smashed?
"You would have the Western press all over Russia," he said.
"We need to apply the same standards to Western countries including founding members of the Council of Europe, such as France, the U.K., or Germany," he said. "It's not an explicit, harsh criticism, but it is a reminder that we are following this."