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Saturday, Apr 10, 2021

‘Watch out! There’s a journo about’: GCHQ blacklisted reporter shining light on UK spy agency’s shady activities, emails reveal

‘Watch out! There’s a journo about’: GCHQ blacklisted reporter shining light on UK spy agency’s shady activities, emails reveal

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK’s signals intelligence agency, has been accused of violating ethics rules after emails showed the organization consciously ignored questions from a reporter.
Internal communications from GCHQ reveal the agency decided it “will not be engaging further” with Matt Kennard, the journalist who heads Declassified UK’s investigations. The email is part of a tranche of documents unearthed by a subject access request that Kennard submitted in September to obtain any data the organization held on him.

Kennard, who previously worked at the Financial Times, first approached the UK intelligence service in 2019 as part of an investigation into the agency’s Cyber Schools Hub programme. In its subsequent reports, Declassified UK exposed that the secretive “educational” programme was disseminating propaganda at dozens of schools to children as young as four years old without the knowledge of their parents.

Initially, basic information about the programme was provided by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), an arm of GCHQ involved in the “educational” initiative. However, the centre began to stonewall Kennard as he dug deeper into the story.

The earliest email disclosed by the information request, dated February 24, 2020, had the subject line “RE: Watch out, watch out, there’s a journo about.”

The NCSC stopped responding to the journalist’s questions after Declassified UK ran its first part of the investigation on June 2, 2020. The centre did not respond to the last three emails Kennard sent regarding the schools programme.

In an internal email chain discussing the piece, GCHQ staff said they would “ignore” Kennard and leave questions he submitted unanswered. The agency also reportedly began to monitor the journalist’s Twitter account, and issued an internal media alert to warn personnel about his muckraking report.

The decision to blacklist Kennard appears to breach the UK’s Civil Service Code, the investigative outlet noted, which states: “You must not act in a way that unjustifiably favours or discriminates against particular individuals or interests.”

It’s unclear if Kennard’s queries are still being intentionally ignored. However, the last question he sent to GCHQ’s press office, on September 23, concerning a different story, has yet to receive a response.

The spy agency’s actions were condemned by press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. Rebecca Vincent, director of the organisation’s international campaigns, told Declassified that Kennard’s treatment represents “yet another worrying example of the UK government imposing arbitrary restrictions on media deemed to be critical – a Trumpian move that has no place in British democracy.”
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