July 23, 2021 - Updated on November 3, 2021

UK: RSF alarmed by Home Office proposals for Official Secrets Acts reforms

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has responded to the Home Office consultation on “Legislation to Counter State Threats,” which proposes alarming changes to the Official Secrets Acts that could see journalists labelled as spies and jailed for up to 14 years for doing their jobs.

RSF’s response to the consultation focused on the crucial need to include a public interest defence in the reformed legislation, which the Home Office has so far actively chosen not to support. RSF also condemned the miscategorisation of journalistic activity as “hostile activity” and “espionage,” and expressed alarm over the possibility of prison sentences of up to 14 years for journalists, journalistic sources, whistleblowers and publishers.

“Although the Official Secrets Acts are indeed long overdue for reform, what the Home Office is proposing is alarming. The failure to include a public interest defence would increase risks for journalists, sources and others who could face the threat of up to 14 years in prison simply for doing their jobs - regressive measures that have no place in any modern democracy. We call on the Home Office to ensure that any forthcoming legislation ensures protection for journalism and press freedom, rather than increasing their level of risk,” said RSF’s Director of International Campaigns Rebecca Vincent.

RSF previously responded to a similar consultation by the Law Commission in 2017, jointly along with English PEN and Index on Censorship, strongly advocating the inclusion of a public interest defence, which the Law Commission included in its own subsequent recommendations.

In its response to the current consultation, RSF also emphasised the need to view the worrying proposed measures in the context of a series of regressive moves that have damaged the UK’s press freedom climate in recent years and have made it increasingly difficult for journalists to do their jobs, including, notably, the adoption of the menacing Investigatory Powers Act in 2016.

RSF’s full consultation response is available to download below.

The UK is ranked 33rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.