Journalists and whistleblowers in Britain could be treated as spies and imprisoned for years under proposals for a new Espionage Act. The Register revealed on Friday that the UK Law Commission’s latest recommendations to the government include treating journalists and leakers as foreign agents, in an attempt to ban future reporting of large data leaks, like the Edward Snowden revelations.
The 326-page consultation paper, titled Protection of Official Data, proposes that the ‘redrafted offence’ of espionage would be ‘capable of being committed by someone who not only communicates information, but also by someone who obtains or gathers it’. The paper proposes ‘no restriction on who can commit the offence’. Had this proposed law been in place in 2013, it could have led to the jailing of Alan Rusbridger, the then Guardian editor who published the Snowden data leaks, for the crime of handling the information passed to his reporters by Snowden.
As if press freedom in Britain wasn’t in a dire enough state. While handling the Snowden story, Rusbridger was threatened with jail and a gagging order when the government attempted to block the story. These new proposals would result in a further chilling effect on press freedom, scaring investigative journalists out of doing their jobs properly.
Under the new proposals certain government offices would become completely off-limits for reporters and whistleblowers. The Register noted: ‘British Embassies abroad, intelligence and security offices, and data centres not officially publicised by the government would be designated as “prohibited places” or “protected sites”, making it an offence to publish information about them or to “approach, inspect, pass over or enter” for any “purpose prejudicial” to national security.’ This gives free rein to certain agencies of the state, which would never have to worry about being held to account. They would be protected from investigation.
The proposals would replace four Official Secrets Acts and would remove ‘public interest’ as a defence for anyone accused of offences. This is insidious. The public-interest defence in the realm of leaks is the one legal tool that provides protection for lowly reporters when faced with the full force of state power.