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.
– The Law Commission wants to know what you think about the proposals. Contact it now.
– Support The Canary if you appreciate the work we do.
Featured image via screengrab
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?