“A fundamental erosion of freedom”: UK Govt lambasted for attack on whistleblowers and journalists

As the UK Govt plans to increase prison terms for leaking of state secrets, civil organisation unite in opposition

THE UK GOVERNMENT has been accused of “criminalising public interest journalism” as it plans to increase the number of years for the leaking of state secrets from 2 years to 14.

10 Downing street and its legal advisers have released the proposals citing the “new reality” of the 21st-century internet and national security dangers as justification for a more robust system of prosecution.

The recommendations centre around the Official Secrets Act (1989) which governs how public servants in government and the military must keep government information secret and out of publication.

However, journalists and civil liberties groups have warned that the threshold for the increased punished has been lowered and that journalists and whistleblowers acting in the public interest will be harmed. 

"The ramifications of these recommendations are huge for journalists and freedom of the press.” Michelle Stanistreet

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, told CommonSpace that concerns over national security especially in the light of Russian hacking of the Democratic national convention (DNC) - during the US election were valid - but attacking journalists was not the answer.

She said: “This is all part of the government has been trying to exert a greater degree of control over information in this new age of leaks. But as Edward Snowden showed there is a public interest behind information making it to the surface, especially in democracies.

“The recommendations are 300 pages long so we will have to look carefully at them with our legal team. But on the face of things we can see that this is a fundamental erosion of freedom and it will criminalise public interest journalism.”

The UK Government released its own comments suggesting that the reaction to its proposals were mired in “overreaction”. Additionally according to its body of legal advisers, the Law Commission, “the maximum sentence for the offences in the Official Secrets Act 1989 is low when compared with offences that exist in other jurisdictions that criminalise similar forms of wrongdoing”.

“In the digital age, the volume of information that can be disclosed without authorisation is much greater than when the Official Secrets Act 1989 was originally drafted. It could be argued that this means that the ability to cause damage to the national interest and the risk of such damage occurring has also increased,” it added.

“We can see that this is a fundamental erosion of freedom and it will criminalise public interest journalism.” Jo Glanville

In the new recommendations, the threshold for being prosecuted for revealing state secrets will be changed from “having caused definite damage” to the likelihood of causing damage to national interests. The Law Commission also stated that a defendant should be prevented from making a defence that they believed they were working in the public interest.

Campaigners say this would make any investigation of government culpability harder and lower the amount of accountability in the civil service, military and government.

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said: "The ramifications of these recommendations are huge for journalists and freedom of the press. Journalists face being criminalised for simply doing their job and the public's right to know will be severely curtailed by these proposals. The union will respond robustly to the Law Commission's consultation on changes to the Official Secrets Act.

“The NUJ is also concerned that the Digital Economy Bill, now in Parliament, threatens to undermine journalists sharing information in the public interest.” Michelle Stanistreet

"This union is deeply concerned at yet another attempt by the UK government to curtail the media. The Investigatory Powers Act has put journalists' sources at risk now that a large number of authorities have the power to intercept reporter's' emails, mobile phone and computer records.

“We have plenty of evidence that some police forces routinely used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to get their hands on journalists' records without their knowledge. The NUJ is also concerned that the Digital Economy Bill, now in Parliament, threatens to undermine journalists sharing information in the public interest.”

The consultation on the new UK Government’s proposals will close on April. Organisations such as Scottish PEN, English PEN and Amnesty will be filling their statements and opposition.  

Picture courtesy of Robbie Phelan

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.