The new Espionage Act could jail people for spreading leaked documents, under current proposals [pdf]. For the first time, a national security law would criminalise leaking “sensitive information” about the UK economy.
Prison for just obtaining the leaks
The Law Commission has drawn up the draft recommendations for the Espionage Act. They suggest [pdf p202] the prison sentence for leaked information should be expanded beyond whisteblowers themselves. As well as the person who leaks the information, anyone who obtains or passes it on would be liable for jail. Not only this, but the commission recommends extending the prison sentence. A legal expert said that the proposals would increase the maximum jail sentence from two to 14 years.
The Espionage Act would replace all previous legislation under the Official Secrets Acts.
Public interest doesn’t matter
In 326 pages on whistleblowing, the report does not once mention Edward Snowden or WikiLeaks. As revealed by Snowden, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) indiscriminately collects data from every visible user on the internet. The programme was illegal for seven secretive years. Still, nobody has been prosecuted. May’s Investigatory Powers Act has now made the mass surveillance official government policy.
Snowden’s revelations uncovered government lawbreaking and huge privacy violations. The US government has never shown proof that the leaks brought any citizen into harms way. Despite all this, Snowden and the journalists who “obtained” the leaks would face imprisonment under the proposals. It doesn’t matter that Snowden is a US citizen because the punishment would apply to anyone, anywhere in the world.
The recommendations get more authoritarian the more you look at them. ‘Public interest’ would not be a legitimate defence against up to 14 years in prison. The commission advises against a statutory public interest defence. Instead, government employees can take any concerns to complaint services. So, under these proposals, people have no legal way to reveal ‘sensitive information’ to the public. No matter what the government is up to.
The Law Commission claimed it consulted with media and rights organisations. But a number of these media outlets and human rights groups have said no such consultation took place. For example, Cathy James, the chief executive of Public Concern at Work, said:
I didn’t actually know we were listed in the document as we have been working our way through it so it is a big surprise to me… we were not consulted in the normal sense of the word consultation… We are very worried about the extent of the provision in the recommendations both for whistleblowers and public officials. It’s a huge backward step and we are very worried.
The Guardian expressed concern about yet another attack on press freedom from May’s government:
The proposals to threaten journalists and whistleblowers with draconian punishment, combined with powers just introduced in the  Investigatory Powers Act to surveil journalists without their knowledge, represent a further attack on freedom of expression.
Jim Killock, the Chief Executive of Open Rights Group, said:
This is a full-frontal attack, recommending criminalising even examining secret services’ material. The intention is to stop the public from ever knowing that any secret agency has ever broken the law.
The recommendations would criminalise leaking or receiving ‘sensitive’ government material. They extend beyond national security and onto the UK economy. This means people could jailed for revealing May’s Brexit plans. Public interest? Apparently, that’s no longer relevant.
If these proposals go ahead, the government will escape accountability for immoral and illegal actions. The law would trample on our democracy.
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