National institution says documents are of academic value, but laws may restrict researchers’ ability to access them.
by Shafik Mandhai, Al Jazeera
The British Library has decided not to acquire an archive of Taliban documents over fears that researchers accessing the materials could fall foul of the country’s terrorism laws.
In a statement posted on its website on Friday, the library acknowledged that the collection was of research value, but some of the material would present “restrictions” on the library’s ability to provide access to the archive.
“The Terrorism Act places specific responsibilities on anyone in the UK who might provide access to terrorist publications, and the legal advice received jointly by the British Library and other similar institutions advises against making this type of material accessible,” the statement read.
The library had been in talks with the consultancy, Thesigers, which represents the Taliban Sources Project, to provide access to the digitised collection.
The materials include poetry, maps, press releases, and edicts published by the Afghan armed group, which has been in a long-running fight against the Afghan government and NATO troops.
Rizwaan Sabir, an academic at Liverpool John Moores University who specialises in the study of counterterrorism and armed movements, said British terrorism laws were creating a climate of fear and self-censorship.
It’s an indictment of the UK gov’t & terror laws that the @BritishLibrary (which is the world’s biggest BTW) is afraid of holding documents.
— Dr. Rizwaan Sabir (@RizwaanSabir) August 28, 2015
“The decision of the British Library may seem far-fetched to some, but the law is clear…it says that sharing information that encourages or is useful for terrorism is a criminal offence,” Sabir told Al Jazeera.
“Simply holding or sharing the information is a criminal offence that can carry a prison sentence…such laws have a deeply damaging effect on the freedom of scholars to research.
“Where such offences exist, a climate of fear and self-censorship becomes inevitable, and free scholarly inquiry becomes next to impossible.”
Sabir was himself arrested in 2008 while conducting research on terrorism for downloading an al-Qaeda training manual from the US Department of Justice website. In 2011, he won compensation and an apology from the British police for false impirsonment.
Academic Thomas Hegghammer, who leads terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, said the issue was the library’s “excessive risk aversion”.
In a series of tweets posted on Friday evening, Hegghammer said the British Library already held documents by other controversial groups.
–> @britishlibrary collection _already_ includes literature by neo-nazis, jihadis, anarchists, others
— Thomas Hegghammer (@Hegghammer) August 28, 2015
The UK Terrorism Act of 2006 makes it a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment, to possess “material likely to be understood” as direct or indirect encouragement to carry out acts considered terrorist in nature.
The British Home Office told Al Jazeera the British Library had acted on their “own independent legal advice and decided not to accept this material into its collections”.