By Andrew Osborn
LONDON (Reuters) - Europe's main media freedom watchdog told Britain on Wednesday it believed political pressure applied to the Guardian newspaper over its handling of leaked intelligence data could have a "chilling effect" on independent journalism.
Former U.S. intelligence operative Edward Snowden's disclosures about activities of Britain's GCHQ eavesdropping agency and its cooperation with America's National Security Agency (NSA) have embarrassed Prime Minister David Cameron's government which has said they damaged national security.
Many of the leaks were published in the Guardian.
"The continual accusations and attacks on the Guardian, their editor-in-chief and journalists by leading politicians is nothing but harassment and intimidation," Dunja Mijatovic, representative for media freedom at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told Reuters.
Lawmakers summoned Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, to a high-profile hearing in parliament in December during which they asked him whether he loved his country and whether he accepted he had committed a terrorism offence.
He said he had never lost control of the Snowden data or leaked the names of any spies.
Rusbridger said separately that the government had threatened legal action against his paper unless it destroyed the classified documents or handed them back. As a result, government officials watched last summer as computers with material provided by Snowden were physically pulverized.
Just last month, Cameron said he was unhappy newspapers were still publishing sensitive information leaked by Snowden.
Cameron has threatened to act to stop publication and has accused unnamed newspapers of assisting Britain's enemies by helping them avoid surveillance by its intelligence services. He has named the Guardian as printing such material.
Responding to questions about whether there was a police investigation into the left-leaning Guardian, a senior police officer said in December that "some people" may have committed terrorism offences for their handling of the Snowden data.
Mijatovic, who met the editor of the Guardian in London last month, said she was increasingly concerned about the amount of pressure the newspaper was coming under.
"Just the possibility of raising terrorism-related criminal charges against journalists is problematic because it has a chilling effect," she said. "We are talking about issues that are...matters of public interest."
"I am not in any way challenging a government's legitimate right to fight terrorism and other threats, but laws should never be used to hinder the work of journalists and suppress free media and the right to free expression".
"Journalists must be free to report on all stories. I am surprised by the lack of solidarity by other UK media and journalists," she said.