As if there needed to be yet another threat to free speech in the UK, British journalists could face 14-year prison sentences for publishing stories embarrassing the government, under proposed reforms to the Official Secrets Act. According to the government, the new proposals will crack down on foreign spies but many fear it could even be used domestically.
The UK government, through the Home Office, has proposed reforms to the 1989 Official Secrets Act, to account for changes technology and the internet has enabled in the sharing of leaked data.
But critics have noted that the proposed changes local journalists are not protected if charged under the new laws.
Critics further noted that if the new proposals were currently law, the journalists who revealed that former Health Secretary Matt Hancock broke his own COVID rules while having an affair with his aide would have been charged. The leak was newsworthy and the story broke through leaked CCTV footage.
Last week, the Information Commissioner’s Office came under fire when it emerged that it searched two homes while investigating how the CCTV footage leaked to The Sun, the news outlet that first broke Matt Hancock’s affair story.
Among the groups criticizing the new proposals is the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which noted that the new law would treat whistleblowers and those who publish leaked content the same way foreign spies are treated.
A spokesperson for the organization said: “Existing legislation distinguishes provisions and penalties between those who leak or whistleblow, those who receive leaked information, and foreign spies.
“The government proposes to eliminate or blur these distinctions. The government also wants to increase the maximum penalties that journalists might suffer for receiving leaked material from two to 14 years….
“The NUJ has long argued that where whistleblowers believe that they have acted in the public interest, they should be able to make this case in court, and if a jury agrees with them, be protected.”
But according to the Home Office: “Since the passage of the Act in 1989, there have been unprecedented developments in communications technology (including data storage and rapid data transfer tools) which in our view, means that unauthorized disclosures are now capable of causing far more serious damage than would have been possible previously.
“As a result, we do not consider that there is necessarily a distinction in severity between espionage and the most serious unauthorized disclosures, in the same way that there was in 1989.
“Although there are differences in the mechanics of and motivations behind espionage and unauthorized disclosure offenses, there are cases where an unauthorized disclosure may be as or more serious, in terms of intent and/or damage.
“For example, documents made available online can now be accessed and utilized by a wide range of hostile actors simultaneously, whereas espionage will often only be to the benefit of a single state or actor.
“In severe cases, the unauthorized disclosure of the identities of agents working for the UK intelligence community, for example, could directly lead to imminent and serious threat to life.”
The Law Commission and the human rights organizations that helped draft the new proposals insist there should be a “public interest defense” in the amendment to protect journalists who receive leaked content.
However, the Home Office argues that such a provision would “undermine our efforts to prevent damaging unauthorized disclosures, which would not be in the public interest.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Freedom of press is an integral part of the UK’s democratic processes and the government is committed to protecting the rights and values that we hold so dear.
“It is wrong to claim the proposals will put journalists at risk of being treated like spies and they will, rightly, remain free to hold the government to account.
“We will introduce new legislation so security services and law enforcement agencies can tackle evolving state threats and protect sensitive data.
“However, this will be balanced to protect press freedom and the ability for whistleblowers to hold organizations to account when there are serious allegations of wrongdoing.”