The United Kingdom’s plans to usher in a National Security Bill could pose a risk to journalists and civil society organisations, potentially exposing them to heavy sentences, including life imprisonment, and threatening the right to freedom of expression.
As the UK Parliament’s House of Commons prepared the second reading of the bill, which would replace parts of the Official Secrets Act, on 6 June, ARTICLE 19 and the Campaign for Freedom of Information outlined their concerns in a Commons briefing.
Under the UK’s National Security Bill, a civil society organisation engaged in legitimate activities with funding from a 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. If, for example, the government decided that the UK’s energy situation required an immediate expansion of fracking or the building of coal-fired or nuclear power plants, the use of leaked information that could undermine that policy could be a criminal offence. The prosecution would only have to show that the information prejudiced the attainment of the government’s policy in the UK’s interests and that the person who used the information received funding from a foreign government. On conviction, that person could face life imprisonment.
ARTICLE 19 and the Campaign for Freedom of Information urge 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.