Under plans to amend the Official Secrets Act, journalists may risk jail sentences of up to 14 years if they publish articles that embarrass the government.
Reporters who handle leaked information will not have a defense if accused under new rules meant to crack down on foreign agents, according to a survey sponsored by Priti Patel’s Home Office, which concludes later this week.
The 1989 legislation is being revised to reflect the influence of the internet era, particularly in the area of data transfer speed.
Human rights groups and the Law Commission, which drafted the recommendations, argue that a “public interest defense” should be included to prevent journalists receiving stolen material from being prosecuted.
However, the Home Office stated in a consultation document that doing so would “undermine our attempts to prevent harmful unauthorised disclosures, which would not be in the public interest.”
Because it depended on stolen CCTV video, critics argued that if the regulations were in force now, the journalists who exposed last month that Matt Hancock was breaching COVID-19 rules by having an affair with his married staffer might have been prosecuted.
His resignation and marriage ended as a result of the disclosure. However, the Information Commissioner’s Office was chastised this week for investigating two residences as part of an inquiry into how the material came to be on the front page of the Sun.
The Index on Censorship and the Open Rights Group are among those who have criticized the new legislation, which they see as an attack on whistleblowers.
“Existing legislation separates rules and punishments between those who leak or whistleblow, those who receive leaked material, and foreign spies,” said a spokesman for the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).
“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 agree with them, be protected.”
However, according to the Home Office document, “unprecedented developments in communications technology (including data storage and rapid data transfer tools) have occurred since the passage of the Act in 1989,” which “means that unauthorised disclosures are now capable of causing far more serious damage than would have been possible previously.”
“As a result, unlike in 1989, we do not believe that there is a necessary contrast in severity between espionage and the most extreme unauthorised disclosures.”
“Although the mechanics and reasons underlying espionage and unauthorised disclosure charges differ, there are situations when an unauthorised disclosure can be just as severe, if not more so, in terms of intent and/or damage.
“For example, internet papers may now be viewed and used by a wide range of hostile players at the same time, whereas espionage is generally solely for the advantage of a single state or actor.
“In severe cases, the unauthorised disclosure of the identities of agents working for the UK intelligence community, for example, could directly lead to imminent and serious threat to life.”
It comes shortly after the United Nations called for more oversight of monitoring technology in the wake of widespread allegations of phone hacking aimed at journalists, activists, and politicians. It was revealed that they had been spied on using smartphone spyware produced by a private Israeli business.
The usage of Pegasus software, produced by Israel’s NSO company, was revealed in a data dump comprising 50,000 phone numbers belonging to persons targeted by NSO’s clients since 2016.
Some of the world’s most restrictive political regimes, such as Hungary, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, are among those clients.
“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,” a Home Office spokesperson said.
“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 organisations to account when there are serious allegations of wrongdoing.”