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Imagine a country where the authorities target investigative journalists as spies, and outlaw news and campaigning organisations that receive foreign funding. At Index on Censorship, we have been writing about such countries since the darkest days of the Cold War.
Now, a coalition of organisations promoting free expression and the rights of journalists is raising serious concerns about sweeping measures contained in new legislation here in the UK.
openDemocracy – alongside the National Union of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship itself – has asked for an urgent meeting with security minister Tom Tugendhat to discuss our joint submission to the parliamentary committee scrutinising the new National Security Bill. (The bill is currently at report stage in the House of Commons, due to go to the House of Lords next.)
An unusual bout of consensus appears to have broken out in Westminster over this particular piece of new legislation. In part, this is due to the British government’s tactical retreat from a full-scale overhaul of the 1989 Official Secrets Act – which would have caused concern for libertarians on the government benches.
The importance of national security in a time of global instability is something we can all understand. And a toughening of measures to crack down on bad foreign actors is relatively easy to sell.
But it is wise to be vigilant when parliamentary consensus occurs – especially when citizens are being asked to trade personal freedoms in exchange for promises of greater security. Civil liberties risk being squeezed between a government desperate to show its toughness in the face of presidents Putin and Xi and an opposition keen to burnish its security credentials.
The new legislation is designed to address serious new threats that have only emerged since the start of the 21st century. There is no question that the growth of the internet has posed challenges to UK security. This, combined with the direct hostility of Russia and the growing geopolitical significance of China, has led to concern in Whitehall about the suitability of existing legislation.
The Home Office claims that the new bill “completely overhauls and updates our outdated espionage laws” – a bold assertion. It also promises a “range of new and modernised offences, with updated investigative powers and capabilities”. These, it says, will “ensure those on the front line of our defence will be able to do even more to counter state threats”.
Such language is designed to instil maximum reassurance in the face of a terrifying and unspecified threat from a hostile foreign government.
But where are the limits to such legislation?
Public interest defence
Our coalition has identified several areas of concern, but chief among them is the chilling effect the new legislation will have on the practice of investigative journalism. The absence of meaningful free-expression protections means that whistleblowers in government will be further deterred from disclosing official wrongdoing.
The new legislation makes it clear that those in receipt of information or documents deemed to benefit foreign powers will face the most severe penalties – up to a maximum of life imprisonment. Although ministers gave assurances under questioning that these measures are not designed to target journalists, such protections are not written into the legislation. The decision to prosecute would ultimately lie with the attorney general of the day.
In the face of such sweeping measures, we are demanding the introduction of a public interest defence to increase protections for those exposing genuine wrongdoing in the sphere of national security.
Fundamental to the concerns of our coalition are the so-called “foreign power conditions” woven throughout the new legislation. Our fear is that the measures are so broadly drawn that journalists and free-speech organisations could be swept up in a future crackdown.
The scope of the National Security Bill as presently drafted is so vast that any organisation receiving foreign funding – including foreign news services – could be caught up by it.
Democracy depends on vibrant and critical journalism. The UK government should resist the desire to sacrifice media freedom on the altar of national security.
This piece first appeared on OpenDemocracy.
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.