LONDON – Several British police forces have questioned newsagents in an attempt to monitor sales of a special edition of Charlie Hebdo magazine following the Paris attacks, the Guardian has learned.
Officers in Wiltshire, Wales and Cheshire have approached retailers of the magazine, it has emerged, as concerns grew about why police were attempting to trace UK-based readers of the French satirical magazine.
Wiltshire police apologised on Monday after admitting that one of its officers had asked a newsagent to hand over the names of readers who bought a special â€œsurvivorsâ€™ issueâ€ of the magazine published after its top staff were massacred in Paris last month.
The case in Corsham, Wiltshire, was thought to be an isolated incident but it has since emerged that Cheshire constabulary and Dyfed-Powys police have also approached newsagents over the sale of Charlie Hebdo.
In at least two cases â€“ in Wiltshire and in Presteigne, Wales â€“ officers have requested that newsagents hand over the names of customers who bought the magazine.
â€œThis is so ridiculous as to be almost laughable. And it would be funny if it didnâ€™t reflect a more general worrying increase in abuse of police powers in invading privacy and stifling free speech in Britain,â€ said Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of free expression campaign group Index on Censorship.
â€œDoes possessing a legally published satirical magazine make people criminal suspects now? If so, I better confess that I too have a copy of Charlie Hebdo.â€
Paul Merrett, 57, the owner of a newsagent in Presteigne, Wales, said a detective and a police community support officer from Dyfed-Powys police spent half an hour asking his wife Deborah, 53, about the magazine.
â€œThey wanted to know about Charlie Hebdo. They came in unannounced and we had customers,â€ he said. â€œThere were questions asking where we got the Charlie Hebdo copies from, did we know who we sold them to â€“ which we didnâ€™t say. We were a bit bemused because it was out of the blue.â€
â€œMy wife said, â€˜Am I in trouble?â€™ because she thought she was in trouble for selling them. They said, â€˜No, youâ€™re not in troubleâ€™ but just continued with their questioning for half an hour.â€
Merrett added: â€œIt was all about Charlie Hebdo. I guess they wanted names and addresses of people we sold them to, which we didnâ€™t tell them anything like that. We sold 30 copies.
â€œMy wife was a bit worried with the questioning but she certainly wouldnâ€™t have given any names to the police. Iâ€™m shocked they asked. They wanted to know where we got the copies from, how did we let the customers know that we had them.â€
A Dyfed-Powys police spokeswoman declined to say why officers sought the names of Charlie Hebdo readers but said: â€œFollowing the recent terrorism incidents, Dyfed Powys police have been undertaking an assessment of community tensions across the force area.
â€œVisits were made to newsagents who were maybe distributing the Charlie Hebdo magazine to encourage the newsagent owners to be vigilant. We can confirm the visits were only made to enhance public safety and to provide community reassurance.â€
In Warrington, Cheshire, a police officer telephoned a newsagent that had ordered one issue of the magazine for a customer, who asked to remain anonymous. She said: â€œMy husband ordered a copy of the special edition of Charlie Hebdo from our local newsagent in North Cheshire.
â€œSeveral days later the latter had a phone call from the police, saying theyâ€™d been told that he had been selling and advertising Charlie Hebdo in his shop. He replied that this was untrue: he had supplied in total one copy, concealed, to a customer who was a French lecturer. I find the police action quite disturbing.â€
Charlie Hebdo buyers attract police interest
Letter: A member of Her Majestyâ€™s police service visited the newsagent, requesting the names of the four customers who had purchased Charlie Hebdo
DCI Paul Taylor, of Cheshire Constabulary, said he was not aware of any officer contacting newsagents by telephone but added: â€œWe were aware of the potential for heightened tensions following the attacks in Paris. Therefore where it was felt appropriate officers visited newsagents to provide reassurance advice around the time of its publication.â€
The MP and former Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis said he thought the police action was more â€œstupid than sinisterâ€ but disquieting nonetheless.
â€œQuite what they think theyâ€™re doing and why they are wasting police time tracking down individual readers of Charlie Hebdo, really makes you wonder what sort of counter-terrorism and security policy those police forces are pursuing.
â€œIt also has to be said that when police forces check up on what you are reading itâ€™s unsettling in a democracy. Iâ€™m quite sure itâ€™s not intentionally so, but it is unsettling and not something you should do lightly.â€
The Metropolitan police said they were unaware of any such investigations by their officers in London.
A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) said there had been no national guidance issued to forces about approaching newsagents that stocked copies of Charlie Hebdo.
However, counter-terrorism officers are known to have shared intelligence nationally following an assessment of potentially vulnerable communities after 17 people were killed in three days of violence in Paris.
The attacks began with two gunmen bursting into Charlie Hebdoâ€™s Paris offices and opening fire in revenge for its publication of satirical images of the prophet.
In the UK, counter-terrorism officers have stepped up protection of police officers and the Jewish community over concerns that they may be targeted by Islamist militants.
Five million copies of the magazine â€“ which has a usual print run of around 60,000 â€“ were published in a special edition, with about 2,000 of them reportedly distributed in the UK. – The Guardian