UK: National Security Bill poses alarming threats to journalism and press freedom
Following the second reading in the House of Lords, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warns that unless the National Security Bill is changed, journalists who share leaked official information in the public interest could face imprisonment if they belong to organisations that receive funding from other countries.
“This worrisome legislative proposal is the latest in a long line of moves by the UK government to restrict independent reporting. The wrongful conflation of journalists as spies could have alarming consequences for press freedom. Every aspect of this bill needs to be reconsidered if it is to fully adhere to the protection of journalists that the government claims to commit to.
Alongside a coalition of journalistic and press freedom organisations, RSF has submitted written evidence to the National Security Bill Committee outlining serious concerns with the bill. The coalition has also requested a meeting with Minister of State for Security Tom Tugendhat, but has not yet received a response.
As currently drafted, the bill criminalises journalists who handle, obtain, retain, disclose or provide access to "protected information" as part of their work, if they work for organisations that receive funding from outside of the UK. This includes respected international public broadcasters such as Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ Ireland), Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and National Public Radio (NPR). While these media outlets are based abroad, they operate in, and report from, the UK, playing a vital role for media plurality.
The broad and ill-defined offences, alongside the lack of a public interest defence, could enable the bill to be used to avoid necessary public scrutiny of the government instead of protecting legitimate national security concerns. The lack of a public interest offence would not give journalists the opportunity to defend their reporting if sentenced under this bill – a concern that has also been raised by the Law Commission in its review of the Official Secrets Acts.
The bill had its second reading in the House of Lords on 6 December and it will now move to the committee stage. The previous readings in the House of Commons furthered fears that the bill presents a threat to press freedom, as proposals to include an amendment for a public interest defence were not included in the debate.
RSF has long warned of the damaging impact that treating the publication of leaked information as a criminal activity could have. Journalists have a right and a duty to report information in the public interest – a right that is too often eroded in the UK in the name of national security.
The UK is ranked 24th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.