Is this the next phase in the roll-back of democratic freedoms?
Controversial changes to Official Secrets laws could see journalists locked up for 14 years for reporting on leaked documents. Now the pushback is growing to the ‘reforms’ which treat reporters in a similar way to spies.
Over 10,000 people have now signed a petition demanding the Home Office – led by Priti Patel – steps back from its Official Secrets reforms, which ministers say will bring rules on reporting secret documents into the 21st century. Media and civil liberties groups say the reforms will have a chilling effect on investigative journalism.
In a statement to supporters, campaign group 38 Degrees wrote: “Plans to reform the Official Secrets Act could mean stories that are of public interest go unreported and be hugely damaging for democracy within the UK.
“The government’s only just announced this, and they’re already facing massive pushback. Boris Johnson even took the step of directly contradicting his Home Secretary.
“Clearly the Prime Minister agrees that it is vital for democracy that journalists are able to report on issues which are in the public interest – and we need to make sure that we hold him to his word on this promise.”
One signatory wrote: “Questioning and uncovering politicians’ incompetence or corruption is not against national security. Just the opposite – it protects it.”
Another wrote: “If the government doesn’t want to embarrass themselves, they should stop acting in embarrassing ways. Simple.”
While ministers have attempted to defend the planned changes as vital for national security, it follows a string of embarrassing leaks, including CCTV footage that led to health secretary Matt Hancock’s resignation last month.
As journalist Paul Lashmar wrote last week: “Many lawyers, lawmakers and journalists have argued that laws concerning official data and secrets are in need of updating to fit a world where espionage and leaks are largely conducted through new technology. But a close reading of the new proposals suggests the agenda is as much to deter journalists, whistleblowers and sources from embarrassing government and intelligence agencies.
“The words “journalist” and “journalism” appear nowhere in the main text, and “press” only on two occasions, yet the proposals implicitly conflate probing journalism with spying by hostile states. They recommend (some 38 times) prosecuting those who make “unauthorised disclosures”, which would include government sources speaking to journalists, and increasing prison penalties from two years to up to 14 years.”
Journalists and the independent Law Commission have called for an exemption to be made in the reforms which protects journalists.
Ministers are also pushing through the Policing Bill, which opponents say will criminalise protest deemed a ‘nuisance’ by the authorities, as well as legislation which will exclude those without identification from voting.
The petition is available here.
Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.
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