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Journalists who obtain leaked material could be sent to prison

13 February 2017


Law Commission proposals that could see journalists jailed for obtaining leaked official documents have been widely criticised by media organisations and freedom campaigners.

The proposals, put forward as part of plans to replace the Official Secrets Act with an updated Espionage Act, could see journalists jailed for up to 14 years for receiving leaked material.

The new law, if approved, would make it an offence to “obtain or gather” official secrets and will extend the scope of the law to cover information that damages “economic well-being”.

The government is currently consulting on the recommendations and interested parties have until 3 April 2017 to respond.

The Society of Editors, which represents more than 400 editors in national, local and regional newspapers, journalism education and media law, has criticised the proposals and warned against their implementation.

It said: “It is deeply worrying that the government is consulting on measures that will, yet again, further restrict the ability of the media to do its job and protect the public’s right to know.

“Press freedom is coming under sustained threat from creeping legislation. The Investigatory Powers Act was passed last year containing safeguards that failed to adequately protect journalists’ sources and we await to see whether draconian measures under Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act – legislation that could see newspaper publishers punished for telling the truth - will be enacted. 

“The proposals to update the Espionage Act, which have been developed in haste, would not only put leaking and whistleblowing in the same category as spying for foreign powers, but would have a chilling effect on the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. The Society will be responding to the consultation in due course and opposing the measures.” 

The plans have been widely criticised by media organisations and other press freedom advocates.

In a leader published by The Sunday Telegraph yesterday, it described the plans as “outrageous” and “nothing less than a threat to Britain's free press and thus its democracy”.

It added: “If it is possible for people who obtain secret official information to be charged with a crime, journalists would be exposed to prosecution simply for doing their job. 

“Journalists' ability to obtain and reveal information that those in power find inconvenient is a vital part of our democracy; the information put before the electorate allows them to cast proper judgment on those who govern them.

“What makes this proposal all the more chilling is the context. Britain's free press is already under threat. The Government , under pressure from hysterical Left-wing activists, is considering enacting Section 40 of the 2013 Crime and Courts Act, subjecting newspapers that refuse to submit to state-backed regulation to extraordinary financial penalties for daring to remain independent.

“The threats to serious journalism in Britain have rarely been greater. Not has the need for that journalism. The internet age has left the world awash with misinformation and misunderstandings, many deliberately fostered by dubious politicians, cynical internet businesses or hostile foreign states. The effects of this "post-truth" phenomenon on politics are dismal.”

Index on Censorship has also criticised the proposals.

Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index 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 whistle blowers and those to whom they reveal their information should face jail for leaking and receiving information that is in the public interest.”

Read the consultation in full here.

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