THE NUJ is warning that Home Office plans to ‘reform’ The Official Secrets Act ‘are a severe threat to journalism’. It is calling on the UK government ‘to introduce a public interest defence in law for journalists investigating and reporting on state wrongdoing.’
The Home Office plans to create new offences to ‘improve the ability of the state to protect official data and information.’ They aim to create many new Julian Assanges.
The NUJ states: ‘Many of the government’s proposals conflate journalism, espionage and “hostile activity” and there appears to be the intention to increase the risks and penalties for journalists and media organisations acting in the public interest.’
The NUJ insists: ‘A journalist at all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.’ It adds: ‘There should be explicit limits within any new legislation to restrict extra-territorial offences in regard to journalists and media organisations abroad. New legislation should not remove the requirement for prosecutors to prove that an unauthorised disclosure was damaging.
‘Whistleblowers and journalists acting in the public interest should not be subjected to increased prison sentences. Journalism should not be equated with espionage and media workers should not be criminalised under any future espionage law.’
The NUJ supports the introduction of a public interest defence. Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: ‘Government proposals to reform the Official Secrets Act are truly chilling and authoritarian. They could brand journalists spies, just for doing their job.
‘This has deep consequences for democracy and makes it easier for the government to block newspapers from revealing stories, such as ministers who break social distancing rules.’
Even the Tory ‘Daily Telegraph’ has opposed the Johnson government’s drive against press freedom. It said in an editorial on Tuesday entitled ‘Muzzling the Press’ that ‘Disturbingly, Whitehall is using this measure in a renewed attempt to muzzle the press by removing the defence that allows confidential, or even secret, information to be divulged in the public interest.’
The Telegraph continues: ‘The proposed measures essentially put journalists on a par with spies’, and concludes: ‘Too many ministers are unable to see the distinction between what is in their own personal or party interest, and what the public should be told, to allow such a law onto the Statute Book.’
Clearly, even the Telegraph can see that, with the rapidly deepening crisis of British capitalism, the state may well be seeking blanket legal backing for all kinds of desperate measures that MPs would never be able to discuss or even vote on, but are seen by the state as necessary.
‘The NUJ supports the introduction of a public interest defence and a person should not be guilty of an offence if that person proves, on the balance of probabilities, that: (a) it was in the public interest for the information disclosed to be known by the recipient; and (b) the manner of the disclosure was in the public interest.’
Currently, WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange is facing up to 175 years in prison for publishing truthful information in the public interest. He is being sought by the United States for publishing US government documents that exposed war crimes and human rights abuses in 2010.
The politically motivated charges represent an unprecedented attack on press freedom and the public’s right to know – seeking to criminalise basic journalistic activity. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for the UK government to ‘end Mr Assange’s deprivation of liberty, respect his physical integrity and freedom of movement, and afford him the right to compensation.’
Amnesty International says: ‘Were Julian Assange to be extradited or subjected to any other transfer to the USA, Britain would be in breach of its obligations under international law.’
Any new Tory legislation will create many new Assanges – people serving long jail sentences for daring to tell the truth about state plans. The press must not be gagged, bound and blindfolded to enable illegal actions to take place.
The UK trade unions must begin a national campaign to Free Assange at once, and must pledge to meet any new legislation that equates journalism with terrorism with a general strike to bring down the Tories, and bring in a workers’ government that will break up the capitalist state once and for all!