Journalism is at risk from the National Security Bill. We’re fighting back

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 JournalistsReporters 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The Home Office claims that the new bill “completely overhauls and updates our outdated espionage laws” – a bold assertion.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.

International press freedom groups condemn killing of Maltese investigative journalist


Daphne Caruana Galizia

Daphne Caruana Galizia

Sixteen press freedom groups condemn the killing of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and demand an immediate and independent investigation into her death.

“The murder of a prominent investigative journalist in broad daylight in an EU Member State underscores the seriousness of this crime. Daphne Caruana Galizia’s work as a journalist to hold power to account and shine a light on corruption is vital to maintaining our democratic institutions. Her killing is a loss for her country and for Europe”, Hannah Machlin, project manager for Index on Censorship’s data platform Mapping Media Freedom, said.

Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed when the car she was driving exploded in Bidnija around 15.00 on 16 October in what is thought to have been a  targeted attack..

“The barbaric murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia is an attack on journalism itself. This crime is meant to intimidate every investigative journalist,” Dr Lutz Kinkel, Managing Director of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, said.

“Because Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and parts of Malta’s political elite were targets of Galizia’s disclosures, we strongly recommend an independent investigation of this case. The killers have to be found and put on trial.”

The blast left her vehicle in several pieces and threw debris into a nearby field. Half an hour before the powerful explosion, the journalist posted a comment about a libel claim the prime minister’s chief of staff had brought against a former opposition leader over comments the latter made about corruption.

Galizia filed a police report 16 days ago saying she was being threatened.

Galizia had conducted a series of high profile corruption investigations and has been subject to dozens of libel suits and harassment. Because of her research, in February, assets were frozen following a request filed by Economic Minister Chris Cardona and his EU presidency policy officer Joseph Gerada.

On 24 August opposition leader Adrian Delia filed a lawsuit against her over stories linking him to offshore accounts totalling to £1 million earned from alleged prostitution in London flats. On 11 March Silvio Debono, owner of the real estate investment company DB Group, filed 19 libel cases against her after Caruana Galizia published a number of articles about his deals with the Maltese government to take over a large tract of high value public land.

Galizia also conducted an investigation linking the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his wife Michelle to secret offshore bank accounts to allegedly hide payments from Azerbaijan’s ruling family, which were unveiled in the Panama Papers. She worked on this investigation with her son Matthew Caruana Galizia, a journalist for the Pulitzer prize winning International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, who has had his posts on allegations of wrongdoing by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his associates censored on Facebook.

On 17 October 2017, her family filed an urgent application for the Duty Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera to abstain from investigating Caruana Galizia’s murder because of the court’s “flagrant conflict of interest”. In 2011, the magistrate initiated court proceedings against the journalist over comments she had made about Magistrate Herrera.

Seven reports of violations of press freedom were verified in Malta in 2017, according to Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project. Five of those are linked to Caruana Galizia and her family.

The murder has brought widespread condemnation from the international community including statements from Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jaglan and OSCE’s Media Freedom Representative Harlem Désir.

We, the undersigned press freedom organisations call for:

— An independent and transparent investigation into the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia

— Protection for her family members and for other Maltese journalists who have been under threat

— Measures to protect the environment for independent and critical journalism to ensure that reporters can work freely


Article 19

The Association of European Journalists (AEJ)  

The Center for Investigative Reporting

Committee to Protect Journalists

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Freedom of the Press Foundation

Index on Censorship

International News Safety Institute (INSI)

International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)

International Press Institute (IPI)

Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)

Ossigeno per I’nformazione

Platform of Independent Journalism (P24)

Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF)

South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1508321261018-6a10a188-6c0b-6″ taxonomies=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]