By Guest author

The UK’s Law Commission has announced proposals that could mean journalists and whistleblowers are treated as spies if they “handle” official data.

The ongoing open public consultation on the protection of official data, run by the Law Commission, suggests that the crime of espionage is changed so that it is “capable of being committed by someone who not only communicates information, but also by someone who obtains or gathers it”. There are also proposals to lift restrictions on who can be charged with espionage. This could mean journalists, NGOs and whistleblowers could be charged as spies. Anyone charged would not be able to claim a public interest defence and could be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.

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The plans appear to be aimed at preventing future leaks like those of Snowden being published. If this proposal had been law in 2013, the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and other journalists who helped break the Snowden stories would undoubtedly have been charged with espionage. If the proposals become law, there will be huge implications for free speech and investigative journalism in the UK. It could also be used to justify similar laws in repressive regimes.

The Law Commission claims it consulted EDRi member Open Rights Group (ORG) about these plans, but this amounted to one single email and a phone call. Other NGOs have also complained about the lack of proper consultation. ORG will make a submission explaining the threats to free speech and why these proposals should be dropped.

Protection of Official Data – Current project status
http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/protection-of-official-data/#protection-of-official-data

14 years in prison for doing journalism?! – Sign the petition
https://www.openrightsgroup.org/campaigns/espionage-act/14-years-in-prison-for-journalists-sign-the-petition-1

Britain attempts to brand journalists as spies
http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/02/britain-attempts-brand-journalists-spies-170217120419832.html

(Contribution by Pam Cowburn, EDRi member Open Rights Group, the United Kingdom)

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