A powerful coalition of leading journalism and press freedom organisations has severely criticised the National Security Bill, making its way through parliament.
Index on Censorship, the National Union of Journalists, openDemocracy and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) state the overly broad and vague way the bill is currently drafted could see journalists labelled as spies and given lengthy jail sentences for simply doing their jobs.
They believe the National Security Bill expands disproportionate and vague powers that target journalists and civil society. While the bill professes to cover acts of espionage damaging to UK national security interests by those acting on behalf of foreign states, its reach is far further than this. Obtaining or sharing protected information, or information that is subject to any type of restriction of access, far beyond classified materials, greatly expands the state’s control over what journalists report on and significantly restricts the public’s right to know. This also opens up the Bill to be abused by the state to protect their reputation and obscure public scrutiny and democratic oversight. Depending on vaguely defined terms such as the interests of the United Kingdom and the Foreign Power condition offers few protections, and such legal uncertainty will only encourage journalists to step away from important public interest reporting to avoid disproportionate prison sentences.
Despite government reassurances that the new legislation will not affect the activities of genuine investigative reporters, there are fears that the vague language in the bill will deter disclosure of wrongdoing by officials and chill public interest journalism. They believe that the maximum sentences in the bill (life imprisonment for espionage and 14 years’ imprisonment for foreign interference) are disproportionate.
At present there are no safeguards or defences in the Bill, leaving the UK far below international human rights standards, and the standards established in other countries, including key intelligence partners. This must be immediately addressed through the inclusion of a strong and accessible statutory public interest defence.
The coalition have requested a meeting with the minister responsible for the Bill, Tom Tugendhat, and have submitted evidence to the Bill Committee laying out their objections in detail.
Stewart Kirkpatrick, Head of Impact at openDemocracy, said: “Journalism is not a crime. It’s a public service – a vital task for exposing wrong-doing and incompetence in government. The fact that this loosely-worded legislation emperils that is worrying in the extreme.”
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “At no point should journalists ever be conflated with spies, yet Government’s legislation risks setting a damaging precedent for this to occur. By criminalising journalists for their reporting, the bill poses a significant threat to both public interest journalism and press freedom.”
Azzurra Moores, UK Campaigns Officer for Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said: “This worrisome legislative proposal is the latest in a long line of ways in which the UK government continues to crackdown on journalists and independent reporting. 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.”
Nik Williams, Policy and Campaigns Officer, Index on Censorship said: “The Bill threatens to criminalise whistleblowing and journalism by drawing parallels between public interest journalism and espionage. While the Government has stated its desire to protect journalism, these assurances are no more than words, with no protections to be found in the proposed legislation. This bill represents a severe threat to media freedom, free expression and the public’s right to know.”
About the coalition
openDemocracy is an independent global media organisation. Through reporting and analysis of social and political issues, we seek to educate citizens to challenge power and encourage democratic debate across the world.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is the voice for journalism and journalists in the UK and Ireland. It was founded in 1907 and has more than 30,000 members working in broadcasting, newspapers, news agencies, magazines, book publishing, public relations, photography, videography and digital media. The NUJ is not affiliated to any political party.
Reporters Without Borders, known internationally as Reporters sans frontières (RSF), is an international non-profit and non-governmental organisation working to promote and defend press freedom around the world. Founded in 1985, the organisation is headquartered in Paris, and aims to act for the freedom, pluralism and independence of journalism and defend those who embody these ideals.
Index on Censorship is a non-profit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists in our award-winning magazine, promote debate through our events programme, and monitor threats to free speech through our advocacy and campaigning work. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution, and our aim is to raise awareness about threats to free expression and the value of free speech.
- The coalition’s submission to the National Security Bill Committee can be read here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5803/cmpublic/NationalSecurity/memo/NSB08.htm
- openDemocracy has published an op-ed authored by Martin Bright, the Editor at large at Index on Censorship on 8 November. The article is reproduced here.