A press photographer has been arrested and held for seven hours by police for taking pictures of a protest outside a former barracks that houses asylum seekers in Kent.
Andy Aitchison, 46, took photos of a demonstration outside Napier barracks on Thursday morning as protestors threw buckets of water mixed with food dye at the gates of the controversial site while holding placards proclaiming: “There will be blood on your hands” and “Close Napier now”.
Aitchison’s photos of the protest were published in local press reports and later, on Thursday, five police officers arrived at his home and arrested him on suspicion of criminal damage of a dwelling.
The Independent reports that police seized his mobile phone and his camera’s memory card before instructing him to accompany them to a police station where he was held for more than five hours before being released on bail.
‘Arresting photographers should not be happening in a liberal democracy’
Aitchison – who has worked for more than 26 years as photographer, and has never been arrested before – was granted bail until February 22 and instructed not to attend Napier Barracks until the case is concluded. The site is four minutes from his home.
“This is very concerning,” said Ian Murray, the executive director of the Society of Editors to the Guardian “We are constantly told journalists, including press photographers, are an essential part of our democratic system in this country and a free media is to be protected.
“But words are not enough. It is actions that count and arresting press photographers is not something that should be happening in a liberal democracy.”
Barracks in headlines for Covid outbreak and fire condemned by Patel
The barracks hit national headlines on Wednesday when the Home Office blamed a Covid outbreak on the 400 asylum seekers housed at the site which has been criticised for poor living conditions.
On Friday it gained further prominence in the media after a fire broke out at the barracks which was described by home secretary Priti Patel as “not only appalling but deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country who are providing this accommodation while asylum claims are being processed.
“This type of action will not be tolerated and the Home Office will support the police to take robust action against those vandalising property, threatening staff and putting lives at risk.”
‘ Arrested for doing my job’
Responding to his experience, Aitchison tweeted: “Yesterday I was arrested for doing my job – being a documentary photographer. This feels like a worrying time for the freedom of press.”
When asked if he did not have his press card with him, the photographer replied: “Yes, the first thing I showed when they [the police] came into my kitchen. Didn’t make any difference to them.”
Another person asked what “damage” it is claimed he caused, given the reason for his arrest and detention as well as the seizure of his phone and camera’s memory card.
‘Police should not be seeking to interfere, prevent or restrict journalists’
The actor, director and writer David Schneider posted a link to the Independent’s story about Aitchison’s arrest to his 500,000 Twitter followers, with the comment: “Just reading about the ruthless authoritarian regime in Hungary arresting a journalist simply for taking photos of a demo and oh actually it’s the UK.”
The National Union of Journalists’ Pamela Morton said the union was “extremely concerned” at the arrest and told the Independent: “Andrew was present solely as a journalist and took no part in the protest.”
Morton added: “News gatherers are key workers and it is their role and duty to report on matters of public interest. The police should not be seeking to interfere, prevent or restrict what journalists record in this way.”
Barrister fined for breaching Covid regs at Euston protest
On the same thread a barrister revealed he has been fined £200 under Covid regulations “for daring to my job” assisting activists who have tunnelled around Euston station to protest against the HS2 rail link.
Paul Powlesland said he has been working pro bono with other barristers and solicitors “to challenge the dangerous practices that the eviction teams have been using to evict the tunnel.”
In a series of tweets Powlesland said he received “multiple messages” today raising concerns for the safety of people in the tunnel “threatened by the eviction team causing flooding, cutting off the air supply and moving a large vehicle on top of the tunnel”.
The barrister said he “went to the site to try and confirm whether this was true” and whilst there, “taking pictures & speaking to witnesses, the police started pushing me & threatening to arrest me, though I repeatedly explained I was a barrister who was there for lawful purposes. They then fined me £200 & said I would be arrested if I didn’t leave.”
‘Stopped from assisting people whose safety was threatened’
Powlesland continued: “It goes without saying that the none of the police were questioning the dozens of security guards standing around to see if they were doing their job. It is very clear that the police are abusing their powers under the covid regs to crack down on civil liberties and protest.
“I will be challenging the fine and am confident of proving that I was there for a lawful purpose. However, I was stopped from assisting people whose safety whilst peacefully protesting was threatened.”
Jenny Jones, a Green party member in the House of Lords has asked the Metropolitan Police if its actions at Euston are lawful.
‘Pressure building to end siege before someone dies’
The Daily Mail is reporting tonight (Saturday) that the tunnel under Euston Station is collapsing according to an 18-year-old activist “holed up” in the tunnel network.
The teenage protestor, Blue Sandford is the daughter of “an eccentric Scottish laird” and “has captured the public’s attention with her smiling selfies from 15ft under the ground” over the past four days, says the Mail.
The paper reports that with “oxygen shortages, five internal soil collapses and claim and counter-claim that liquid mud is being poured into the tunnels to force protesters out, pressure is building to end the siege before someone dies.”