THE Tory government is set to introduce a new Espionage Act under which its judiciary will be able to jail journalists and ordinary members of the public as spies for revealing information that the government demands be kept a secret.
The government’s advisers have recommended a ‘future-proofed’, draconian Act that will put leaking information and whistleblowing in the same category as spying for foreign powers and turn the UK into one big prison for basic democratic rights.
The plan is to treat whistleblowers, leakers and journalists as agents of a foreign power, even if they are British nationals, and even if they insisted that they were acting in the public interest. The recommendations of the UK Law Commission are contained in a 326-page consultation paper titled Protection of Official Data.
One legal expert said the new changes would see the maximum jail sentence increase from two years to 14 years; make it an offence to ‘obtain or gather’ rather than simply share official secrets; and to extend the scope of the law to cover information that damages ‘economic well-being’. ‘It is clearly an attempt to criminalise ordinary journalism,’ said Jim Killock, chief executive of the Open Rights Group.
John Cooper QC, a leading criminal and human rights barrister who has served on two Law Commission working parties, added: ‘These reforms would potentially undermine some of the most important principles of an open democracy.’
Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: ‘The proposed changes are frightening and have no place in a democracy, which relies on having mechanisms to hold the powerful to account. It is unthinkable that whistleblowers and those to whom they reveal their information should face jail for leaking and receiving information that is in the public
Such official data will range from the secret plans of the government for running down the NHS, to the functioning of the nuclear power industry, or any strategic industry. The Law Commission report asks, rhetorically, if ‘sensitive information relating to the economy should be brought within the scope of the legislation… in so far as it relates to national security’.
Alan Rusbridger, the former Guardian editor who published the Snowden revelations has commented that: ‘It is alarming that such a far-reaching proposed reform of laws which could be used to jail whistleblowers and journalists should have been drafted without any adequate consultation with free speech organisations.’
According to the Commission, the proposed ‘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’.
To emphasise that the enemy is the whole of society it is being stipulated that there should be ‘no restriction on who can commit the offence,’ from hackers, leakers, elected politicians, journalists, NGOs or just citizens who have got themselves into a situation where they just know too much as far as the government and its secret state is concerned.
Cited as a primary reason for the new legislation is the fact that the former Guardian editor Rusbridger could not be thrown into prison for handling copies of ten documents that were passed to his reporters by Edward Snowden. As it was state agents could only threaten him with a gagging order and prison, and then force him to destroy newspaper computers.
A proposed feature of the new legislation is that 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.
The proposed law would replace four Official Secrets Acts dating back to 1911, as well as a raft of other government restrictions on releasing information, providing extra powers instead. There should be no statutory public-interest defence for anyone accused of offences, the Commission say. Nobody will be safe until this capitalist state is destroyed by a socialist revolution of the working class.