Law Commission’s recommended changes to espionage laws a threat to journalists

Jodie Ginsberg

Proposed changes to official secrets legislation would see the maximum prison sentence for journalists who obtain leaked official documents increased to 14 years.

A revised espionage act would criminalise the obtaining or gathering of state secrets and would encompass information that damages “economic well-being”.

The Law Commission of England and Wales has recommended that the four official Secrets Acts be replaced and that there should be “no restriction on who can commit the offence”.

Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship (pictured), said the changes were “frightening” and “have no place in a democracy”.

She added: “It is unthinkable that whistleblowers and those to whom they reveal their information should face jail for leaking and receiving information that is in the public interest.”

Ms Ginsberg accused the Law Commission of failing to fully consult with journalists before making the recommendations in its 326-page consultation.

“It is shocking that so few organisations were consulted on these proposed changes given the huge implications for public interest journalism in this country,” she said.

Jim Killock, chief executive of the Open Rights Group, said: “It is clearly an attempt to criminalise ordinary journalism. The idea seems to be to criminalise the act of handling leaked documents which would prevent the public from knowing when the government is breaking the law.

“It is fundamentally un-British to try to control journalists in this way. It is completely unreasonable to equate any leak of secret information as an act of espionage.”

A spokesman for the Law Commission said it was “both misleading and incorrect” to say the proposals posed a greater risk to journalists.

The spokesman added: “The current offences contained in the Official Secrets Act 1911 are broad. We are seeking views on how the law could meet 21st century challenges whilst also ensuring people don’t inadvertently commit serious offences.

“Our provisional recommendations make a number of suggestions to improve the current laws around the protection of official data and we welcome views in our open public consultation.”

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