Press freedom groups today urged the UK Government to drop proposals which could see journalists jailed for receiving confidential information from state sources.
The Law Commission is currently consulting on replacing the Official Secrets Act with a new Espionage Act.
The new proposed law states a new offence could be committed by “someone who not only communicates information” but also “by someone who obtains or gathers information” – i.e. a journalist.
The consultation also suggests that maximum sentences for breaching Official Secrets Act style offences should be increased from two years to 14 years in prison.
It broadens the scope of the law to include information which “affects the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom in so far as it relates to national security”.
In a joint submission to the consultation (which closes tomorrow) , Index on Censorship, English PEN and Reporters Without Borders argue that journalists and sources acting in the public interest should be protected from prosecution.
The current Law Commission proposals suggests there should be no public interest defence.
The freedom of speech groups also argue that the new law should not include economic information, but be confined to security matters.
Director of English PEN Jo Glanville said: “This is an important opportunity to reform official secrets legislation and make it fit for the 21st century.
“Our response to the consultation demonstrates that it is both viable and necessary to include a public interest defence. Some of the most important news stories of the past seven years have been based on leaks of classified information that are squarely in the public interest and have resulted in critical public debate about foreign policy, privacy and freedom of expression.”
Chief executive of Index on Censorship Jodie Ginsberg said: “The proposals laid out by the Law Commission threaten free expression and in particular a free media in the UK and should not be implemented in their current form.”
UK bureau director of Reporters Without Borders Rebecca Vincent said: “The Law Commission’s proposal is nothing short of alarming, particularly when viewed in the context of a broader trend of worrying moves against press freedom in the UK over the past year, resulting in the UK dropping to a ranking of 40th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
“The prospect of journalists being labelled as ‘spies’ and facing the threat of serious jail time for simply doing their jobs in the public interest is outrageous. This proposal must be revised with respect for press freedom at its core.”