A sweeping new threat to freedom of expression is contained in the UK’s National Security Bill which had its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday, 6 June. The Bill is being championed by Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Although the government has claimed the measure is designed to prevent new types of spying, the Bill is much broader, wider even than the much-criticised section 1 of the 1911 Official Secrets Act it would replace.
Journalists who receive some funding from foreign governments are at risk of committing offences under a bill that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The risk also applies to individuals working for civil society organisations such as human rights groups.
It would be an offence to disclose leaked information that would prejudice the “safety or interests of” the UK. What constituted such prejudice would be entirely a matter for ministers to decide and there would be no defence to argue that the publication was in the public interest.
Also, as The Guardian reported on the weekend, under the Bill, ministers and spies would be given immunity from collusion in serious crimes overseas.
Read more: Priti Patel’s Sweeping New Threat to Free Expression, Declassified UK
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Concerns about the Bill
Initial concerns about clause 1 of the Bill were set out in a joint 8-page briefing for MPs by the Campaign for Freedom of Information (“CFOI”) and ARTICLE 19.
ARTICLE19 is a charity registered in the UK with offices in 8 countries. It works globally to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression, including the right to information.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information played a leading role in persuading the government to introduce the Freedom of Information Act in 2000 and has successfully defended it from restrictions proposed by every government since. Regarding the National Security Bill, CFOI wrote:
“We are concerned at the Bill’s implications for journalists and those working for civil society organisations involved in legitimate activities who receive some funding from foreign governments. Such individuals are at risk of committing offences under the Bill for which the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
“The identical act by someone not in receipt of foreign government funding might not be an offence at all.”
Under the Bill, a civil society organisation engaged in legitimate activities with funding from UK-friendly foreign government sources, such as the Swedish Development Agency or US AID, for work on environmental, human rights, press freedom, asylum, aid or other issues could be found guilty of committing an offence. Significantly, if a civil society organisation operating without foreign funding took the identical action, it would not be guilty of an offence and would not face a similar penalty.
A journalist working for a government state broadcaster – including that of a friendly state – who reports on a leak of protected information that the UK government decided was prejudicial to the interests or safety of the country, could be found guilty of committing an offence. They could also face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Essentially, the proposed Bill will criminalise matters that do not involve espionage, sabotage or other hostile actions by or on behalf of foreign states.
Under the Bill, the UK government would decide what constituted the safety or interests of the country, and this could not be challenged in court.
ARTICLE 19 and CFOI have urged the UK government to review the Bill and to ensure it protects the rights of journalists, civil society and the general public to exercise their right to freedom of expression and to access information.
Read more: National Security Bill threatens free expression, ARTICLE19, 6 June 2022
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