UK: 100 years of secrecy
25 Aug 2011
London, 25.08.11: This week, the UK’s 1911 Official Secrets Act reached its 100th birthday. The Act gives authorities broad powers to make information secret and prosecute those who release it without authorisation. The OSA is the mother of similar laws in dozens of Commonwealth countries, most of whom have lasted long past their colonial roots with little reform and are still used to suppress information and public discussion.
“It is time to retire the archaic Official Secrets Act in the UK and its unwanted children across the world,” says Dr Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. “What is needed in all countries instead is modern right to information laws to make governments transparent and accountable.”
Since its inception, the OSA has been the bane of whistleblowers, journalists and the public’s right to know. In its’ heyday, it was said to be able to suppress the number of tea cups served in a UK ministry’s dining room. Today it is still used in Malaysia to suppress official documents about accidents and corrupt deals, in Kenya to harass whistleblowers, and to silence journalists in Zimbabwe.
Many Commonwealth countries are also trying to deal with its legacy. It was repealed in New Zealand and the Cook Islands when they adopted their right to information laws, and Jamaica and Nigeria are currently working on repealing it also. In India, the Right to Information Act 1995 overrules it, making it mostly irrelevant. In the UK, it was substantially amended in 1989 and further undercut by the adoption of the Freedom of Information Act in 2000.
Not all the trends are positive, in South Africa, Parliament is currently debating replacing the repressive Apartheid-era Protection of Information Act with an equally bad new Act.
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