In June Yorkshire Bylines reported that the government had introduced its much heralded national security bill into parliament: In the government’s view the bill aims to address serious new threats that have emerged with the growth of the internet since the start of the 21st century. It also makes clear that those who possess information or documents that may benefit foreign powers will face severe penalties, including life imprisonment. It is due to have its report stage in the Commons next week. However, in its current form, if it became law, journalists could be jailed for telling the truth.
Protecting the right to report
That’s why a coalition of organisations promoting free expression and journalists’ rights to report is raising serious concerns about sweeping measures contained in the new legislation. They include openDemocracy the National Union of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship. They have also asked for an urgent meeting with security minister Tom Tugendhat to discuss their joint submission to the parliamentary committee scrutinising the new national security bill.
The coalition is demanding the introduction of a public interest defence in order to protect those who expose genuine wrongdoing. Kevan Jones MP, the Labour member for North Durham, has brought forward such an amendment, introducing a public interest defence, which could help protect journalists and our right to know.
As we reported in June, the legislation is based partly on recommendations in a 2020 Law Commission report (originally commissioned in 2015) titled ‘Protection of Official Data’. One of these recommendations, significantly rejected by government, was recommendation 33 paragraph 11.81 which reads:
“A person should not be guilty of an offence under the Official Secrets Act 1989 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. We make no further recommendation beyond this in respect of the form of the defence.”
Arrests of journalists
It comes as three journalists reporting on Just Stop Oil campaigners blocking the M25 in England were arrested by police and held in custody, despite offering to show their press cards. One of the journalists, Charlotte Lynch of LBC, said the experience was “terrifying” and raised issues about press freedom in the UK. The action came as Home Secretary Suella Braverman told police to get tougher on Just Stop Oil activists.
Braverman’s outburst, however, has also resulted in a chilling effect on journalists’ right to report, a foretaste of what’s to come if the national security bill becomes law. And don’t forget it’s Braverman who is promoting the legislation in parliament.