In a newly released 326-page consultation paper titled ‘Protection of Official Data’, the Law Commission proposes replacing the Official Secrets Act with an updated ‘Espionage Act’. Although the proposal has now been opened for a public consultation closing on 3 April, the Law Commission developed the initial recommendations without meaningfully engaging NGOs and media, effectively shutting out key stakeholders in a serious matter of public interest.
As proposed, the act would redefine espionage as “capable of being committed by someone who not only communicates information, but also by someone who obtains or gathers it”. There would be “no restriction on who can commit the offence”, and the maximum jail sentence for such offences would be increased from two years to a staggering 14 years. The scope of the law would also be broadened to include information that damages “economic well-being”.
“The UK government's increasingly hostile attitude towards journalists and whistleblowers is alarming, particularly in the context of a number of other worrying moves against press freedom in recent months", said Rebecca Vincent, RSF’s UK Bureau Director. “The threat of being labelled a spy and facing possible serious jail time for legitimate journalistic work would be a serious deterrent for many journalists, and would have a significant chilling effect on the media, restricting the public’s right to access information”.
The new recommendations follow a recent public consultation on the problematic Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 pertaining to press regulation, which a joint RSF/English PEN submission called to be repealed.
The proposals also follow the passage in December of the menacing Investigatory Powers Act, described by the Don’t Spy on Us Coalition as “the most extreme surveillance law in UK history”. RSF has cautioned that the law could serve as a “death sentence for investigative journalism” in the UK ; combined with the proposed new Espionage Act, the threat to investigative journalism is even more alarming.
The United Kingdom is ranked 38th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.