National Security Bill: UK’s latest crackdown on journalists explained

Priti Patel’s new law would make it an offence for cer­tain organ­i­sa­tions to reveal ‘restrict­ed’ information

UK MPs are set to debate the government’s new ‘nation­al secu­ri­ty’ law, which could crim­i­nalise pub­lic inter­est jour­nal­ism while grant­i­ng min­is­ters immu­ni­ty from involve­ment in war crimes.

Priti Patel’s National Security Bill, unveiled in the Queen’s Speech last month, would make it an offence for jour­nal­ists to report ‘restrict­ed’ offi­cial infor­ma­tion in the pub­lic inter­est if they or their organ­i­sa­tion has received fund­ing from a for­eign state.

The bill is now set to enter what is known as ‘com­mit­tee stage’ and ‘report stage’ as it moves through Parliament – a chance for MPs to scru­ti­nise it in detail and vote on changes.

Tory back­bencher David Davis has already warned that media organ­i­sa­tions such the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and non-gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tions (NGOs) such as Reprieve, Transparency International and Anti-Slavery International – all of which have been giv­en grants by over­seas gov­ern­ments while car­ry­ing out impor­tant trans­paren­cy work – could face pros­e­cu­tion under the new laws.

The Home Secretary has been crit­i­cised for fail­ing to include safe­guards to pro­tect jour­nal­ists and whistle­blow­ers in the bill.

The Home Office argues that the bill, which was debat­ed in Parliament on Tuesday, is need­ed because the UK’s secre­cy laws are out­dat­ed and no longer counter “mod­ern-day state threats” from coun­tries includ­ing Russia and China. The Official Secrets Act, a series of laws gov­ern­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty and the pro­tec­tion of state secrets, was last updat­ed in 1989. 

But crit­ics say the laws are too broad and risk crim­i­nal­is­ing the act of chal­leng­ing the gov­ern­ment. The pro­pos­als come after just weeks after the gov­ern­men­t’s recent­ly passed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill, which has been wide­ly crit­i­cised for crack­ing down on protest, and an Elections Bill that civ­il rights groups say under­mines the inde­pen­dence of the UK’s elec­tions watchdog.

These are the most con­tentious proposals.

Criminalise whistleblowers and civil society organisations

Any indi­vid­ual or organ­i­sa­tion that receives fund­ing from a for­eign gov­ern­ment, includ­ing the UK’s allies, could be con­sid­ered as act­ing for or on behalf of that gov­ern­ment under the new laws.

Civil rights groups have warned that jour­nal­ists and activists who share leaks of offi­cial infor­ma­tion to oppose gov­ern­ment poli­cies could face impris­on­ment under the National Security Bill if they belong to organ­i­sa­tions that have been giv­en grants by oth­er countries.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information and human rights char­i­ty Article 19 said that the changes were “oppres­sive and disproportionate”.

If the gov­ern­ment decid­ed that the UK’s ener­gy sit­u­a­tion required an imme­di­ate expan­sion of frack­ing or the build­ing of coal fired or nuclear pow­er plants, the use of leaked infor­ma­tion which could under­mine that pol­i­cy could be a crim­i­nal offence under the bill,” they said in a brief­ing to MPs.

Protect, the UK’s lead­ing whistle­blow­er char­i­ty, has also crit­i­cised the bill for fail­ing to safe­guard whistleblowing. 

The offences are so wide­ly drawn that our fear is that whistle­blow­ers who reveal a trade secret while rais­ing con­cerns about fraud or cor­rup­tion to for­eign reg­u­la­tor or law enforce­ment such as the FBI or to a for­eign-owned media out­let could be com­mit­ting a crim­i­nal offence that car­ries a sen­tence of life in prison,” said Andrew Pepper-Parsons, the organisation’s head of policy.

The gov­ern­ment ignored a rec­om­men­da­tion by the Law Commission to include a pub­lic inter­est defence in the bill, which would allow cam­paign­ers and jour­nal­ists to chal­lenge offences for shar­ing leaks.

Widens the definition of what information is illegal to share

The shar­ing of cer­tain con­fi­den­tial offi­cial infor­ma­tion is already a crim­i­nal offence under the Official Secrets Act 1989 – but only if the data relates to secu­ri­ty and intel­li­gence, defence or inter­na­tion­al relations.

The National Security Bill removes these lim­its. It would make the shar­ing of any offi­cial infor­ma­tion for or on behalf of a for­eign pow­er (a def­i­n­i­tion that includes work­ing for an organ­i­sa­tion that has received fund­ing from over­seas gov­ern­ments) an offence if it is restrict­ed in any way “for the pur­pose of pro­tect­ing the safe­ty or inter­ests of the UK”.

This is a bit of a mouth­ful – but what it poten­tial­ly means is that if a media organ­i­sa­tion or NGO has ever received fund­ing from a non-UK gov­ern­ment, then it can­not share any infor­ma­tion that the gov­ern­ment hasn’t active­ly dis­closed. Finding and report­ing offi­cial infor­ma­tion that is ‘restrict­ed’ in some way is more com­mon­ly known as journalism.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information and Article 19 both argue that this law could also be applied to any infor­ma­tion that the gov­ern­ment has refused to dis­close via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, as that refusal would con­sti­tute a restric­tion. The government’s record on dis­clos­ing infor­ma­tion through FOI has been abysmal.

Allow ministers to decide what information is legal or illegal to share

The bill would make shar­ing offi­cial infor­ma­tion an offence when it is used in a way that is prej­u­di­cial to the UK’s “safe­ty or interest”.

In the bill’s explana­to­ry notes, even the gov­ern­ment admits that this term is “not defined” – but argues that case law has set a prece­dent for min­is­ters to deter­mine what is the safe­ty or inter­est of the UK.

The bill sets no lim­its to what could be con­sid­ered “an inter­est” – only that min­is­ters would get the final say.

Grant ministers and spies immunity from assisting in overseas crimes

While mak­ing it hard­er for jour­nal­ists to reveal min­is­ters’ wrong­do­ing, the bill also per­verse­ly grants immu­ni­ty to min­is­ters or spies who assist in over­seas crimes. 

The Serious Crime Act, which was passed in 2007, made it an offence to do any­thing in the UK encour­ag­ing or assist­ing a crime over­seas. But the Home Office is propos­ing an exemp­tion if that assis­tance was “nec­es­sary for the prop­er exer­cise of any func­tion” of the armed forces or UK intel­li­gence services.

Reprieve, an inter­na­tion­al human rights organ­i­sa­tion, said it would mean offi­cials who pro­vide infor­ma­tion to for­eign part­ners lead­ing to some­one being tor­tured or unlaw­ful­ly killed in a drone strike, for instance, would be shield­ed from prosecution. 

The char­i­ty also raised con­cerns that vic­tims of those crimes could be pre­vent­ed from seek­ing jus­tice in court. 

The senior Tory MP David Davis has come out against the clause, warn­ing in the Guardian that it could “let min­is­ters off the hook if they autho­rised crimes like mur­der and tor­ture from the safe­ty of their desks in Whitehall”.

Restricts legal aid for people who have been convicted of terrorism offences

Human rights organ­i­sa­tions have raised con­cerns that the bill will unnec­es­sar­i­ly lim­it access to jus­tice by restrict­ing legal aid for indi­vid­u­als pre­vi­ous­ly con­vict­ed of ter­ror­ism offences – leg­is­la­tion that has been applied to peace­ful protesters. 

Jacob Smith, a legal expert at Rights and Security International, said the leg­is­la­tion would “pun­ish an indi­vid­ual twice for the same con­duct” by mak­ing it hard­er for them to chal­lenge mis­treat­ment by the government.

The bill would also allow the gov­ern­ment to reduce the amount of dam­ages an indi­vid­ual with a ter­ror con­vic­tion can receive, even if they win their case.

Smith said that the pro­pos­al was par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cern­ing giv­en the recent mis­ap­pli­ca­tion of ter­ror­ism legislation.

In 2019, the UK was crit­i­cised by the United Nations for using anti-ter­ror and secu­ri­ty leg­is­la­tion to pros­e­cute a group of peace­ful protests who pre­vent­ed a depor­ta­tion flight from tak­ing off at an airport.

The so-called Stansted 15 were giv­en sus­pend­ed sen­tences before their con­vic­tions were lat­er quashed on appeal.

Original source of arti­cle: www.opendemocracy.net/en

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