The News Media Association has today warned that proposed reforms to the “regime protecting official information” would create “damaging and dangerous inroads into press freedom” if given the go ahead.
It said consultative proposals for changes to the Official Secrets Act – dubbed the “Espionage Act” – the Data Protection Act and “other unauthorised disclosure offences” would make “whistle-blowers, journalists and media organisations prime targets for state surveillance and criminal prosecution”.
The association, which represents national and regional UK news publishers, outlined the news media industry’s “wide-ranging objections” to proposals in a 20-page document.
It said: “The proposed new regime threatens to be both retrograde and repressive. It would extend and then entrench official secrecy. It would be conducive to official cover up. It would deter, prevent and punish investigation and disclosure of wrongdoing and matters of legitimate public interest.”
The association warned there would be a “chilling effect on investigative journalism” because proposals would “make it easier for the Government to prosecute anyone involved in obtaining, gathering and disclosing information, even if no damage were caused, and irrespective of the public interest”.
It added: “The regime could lead to increased use of state surveillance powers against the media under the guise of suspected media involvement in offences, posing a threat to confidential sources and whistle-blowers.”
The NMA warned that as well as “clamping down” on whistle-blowers, the changes would undermine established voluntary safeguards against damaging disclosures.
It said: “NMA members and the wider media do strive to avoid harm and ensure lawful publication. They use the long established voluntary systems, specifically designed to reduce the risk of inadvertent harm.”
Press freedom campaigners have labelled proposed “Espionage Act” reforms, put forward by the Law Commission in February as “an attack on democracy” and warned they would be on a collision course with existing freedom of information powers if adopted.
The existing Official Secrets Act was drafted to protect Britain’s secrets from Germany before World War One and states that defendants “engaged in the espionage type conduct, must have intended for it to benefit an enemy”. It passed into law in 1911.
The new proposed law states this offence can be committed by “someone who not only communicates information” but also “by someone who obtains or gathers information” – i.e. a journalist.
An exemption for journalists under The Data Protection Act currently being threatened by the European Union’s planned General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law reforms, set to take effect in May 2018.
Summing up its concerns, the NMA said: “The past pursuit of journalists and their sources under all these laws is well documented. The NMA has previously advocated reforms that would respect freedom of expression and enable public interest investigations and disclosures.
“Instead, the Law Commission, as charged by the Cabinet Office, proposes yet more efficient tools for government prosecution, criminal sanctions and suppression of public interest investigation and disclosures by the media.
“There is no evidence to justify new repressive criminal laws to protect official data.
“The NMA hopes that the Law Commission will reconsider its proposals as a result of the consultation. It is in any event vital that the new government – or any future government- does not seek to introduce such restrictive changes to the criminal law.”