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Is UK’s New Law to Counter ‘State Threats’ Jeopardising Whistleblowers and Free Press?

© AFP 2021 / ANDREW COWIEA selection of British national newspapers
A selection of British national newspapers - Sputnik International, 1920, 23.07.2021
The UK government's new piece of legislation is directly threatening investigative journalists and equating reporters with spies, warn General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists Michelle Stanistreet, independent media reporter Gordon Dimmack and Dr Ellis Cashmore, a British media analyst and independent commentator.
The UK government has proposed toughening the 1989 Official Secrets Act to criminalise unauthorised disclosure of official materials and increase prison terms for such offences, from two years up to 14 years. The changes are necessary as "the threat from hostile activity by states" is growing, according to UK Home Secretary Priti Patel.
"Government proposals to reform the Official Secrets Act are truly chilling and authoritarian", says Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists. "They could brand journalists spies, just for doing their job, and land them with 14-year jail sentences".
The government reform is fraught with severe risks for reporters and whistleblowers who publish information in the public interest, as their protection would be watered down and the police would be able to seize their journalistic materials, according to the trade unionist.
"This all has deep consequences on democracy and makes it easier for the government to block newspapers from revealing stories, such as ministers who break social distancing rules", she warns.
​The British government's initiative spells the end of public interest journalism, echoes Gordon Dimmack, an independent media reporter:
"The UK government is criminalising telling you the truth, and is it any wonder?" he says, referring to the imprisonment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. "All this from a government telling us they're defending media freedom, at the same time as locking up a journalist with a perfect record of telling the truth in the most secure prison in the UK and throwing away the key".
​The timing of this proposal is remarkable, notes Dr Ellis Cashmore, a media analyst and independent commentator. While today's news is dominated by what the British call the “pingdemic”, food shortages, the Olympic Games, possible strike action by National Health Service workers, and former Prime Minister David Cameron's controversial involvement in lobbying on behalf of a commercial company, the reform has remained largely unnoticed, according to him.
"The Boris Johnson administration has chosen a perfect moment in history to slide this crucial piece of legislation under the radar. In one sense, this is brilliant politicking. In another, it's a giant step towards authoritarian rule", Dr Cashmore highlights, adding that "if successful, the legislation will criminalise criticism".
All in all, the government proposal "presents one of the greatest threats to media freedom of expression since the Second World War", the professor believes.
​Predictably, the media is "strictly opposed to the changes which will undermine its independence and effectively declaw it", according to Dr Cashmore.
Indeed, British journalists began to sound the alarm a few weeks ago, with Patrick Cockburn, an award-winning Independent columnist, warning on 2 July that the government had launched a "multi-front attack on freedom of expression in the name of national security".
"Among measures being considered or already under way are a reformed Official Secrets Act that will conflate investigative journalism and whistleblowing with espionage", he wrote. "On another front, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is being crippled by rejecting requests and under-resourcing."
Later, The Sun came issued a warning that scoops such as the recent exposure of ex-Secretary of Health Matt Hancock’s affair, which cost him a ministerial seat, could be threatened by the new government proposal.
Furthermore, the proposal would silence Edward Snowden-style revelations, argued The Conversation's Jonathan Este, who recalled that the ex-NSA contractor's exposures in 2013 prompted a public debate over the activities of US and UK spy agencies, including major global surveillance programmes.
According to Este, "much hard-hitting investigative journalism" is based on sensitive leaks and "unauthorised disclosures" which allow the public to hold high-ranking officials accountable.
While a Home Office spokesperson told the Press Gazette that it was wrong to say journalists would be treated like spies, asserting that they would remain free to hold the government to account, the Home Office consultation document says clearly: "We do not consider that there is necessarily a distinction in severity between espionage and the most serious unauthorised disclosures".
The News Media Association (NMA), which represents British newspapers, has already lashed out at the "draconian" legislation and "strongly urged" the British government to "reconsider these measures and instead work with the industry to place appropriate protections for journalism at the heart of the Official Secrets Act so that freedom of speech is enhanced by the new regime rather than weakened further".
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