A free press is the beating heart of our democracy – don't let the Government stifle it

Posted by Katie Bamber on 27 April 2017

Yesterday Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published its annual World Press Freedom Index.

It made for grim reading. The UK is down two more places in the rankings, having slipped 12 over the past five years.

Unsurprisingly, the downward trend has been helped on by the Investigatory Powers Act – the "most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history [...] with insufficient protection mechanisms for whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources, posing a serious threat to investigative journalism".

It is, as RSF puts it, a downward spiral – a clampdown on transparency and scrutiny by those in power, "often in the name of national security".

Making investigative journalism a crime

The news comes a week before the end of the Law Commission’s consultation on plans for an oppressive ‘Espionage Act’ that would silence whistleblowers and gag our press.

The proposals, published in February, sent a chill down the spines of everyone who cares about democracy, government transparency and press freedom – not to mention those who’ve personally made huge sacrifices to expose vital information in the past, to the benefit of us all.

The plans seek to drastically extend the maximum prison sentence for whistleblowers, and broaden the offence of espionage to more easily encompass journalists.

The changes are partly thought to be a response to former US National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Edward Snowden’s revelations – which exposed the UK’s unlawful mass surveillance programmes.

One suggestion makes this especially clear: it would allow foreign nationals to be prosecuted.

No public interest defence

FOIA

With such wide parameters, this Act would tie our democracy in chains.

At the moment, the Government has to prove a revelation caused damage in order to prosecute whistleblowers and journalists – although even this standard has been widely criticised as too low. Under these plans, just knowing the information could hypothetically cause undefined, unproven damage would be a crime.

Currently whistleblowers from the intelligence and security services can be prosecuted even without proof of damage, no matter what they publish. The Law Commission proposes retaining this blanket and disproportionate ban.

That the material could be of hugely important public interest would be no defence.

In effect, anything that might cause ministers embarrassment or inconvenience will raise the prospect of prosecution even more strongly.

Katharine Gun

In this brave new world, heroic whistleblowers like Katharine Gun could be imprisoned for years.

Katharine was working as a translator at GCHQ when she was horrified to read an email from the NSA requesting help with an illegal operation.

British spies were being asked to collaborate in a plan to bug the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, along with the UN offices of six countries – countries the US was trying to persuade to back its planned invasion of Iraq.

Katharine handed a copy of the email to a friend with contacts in the press, and on 2 March 2003 it was printed on the Observer’s front page.

After confessing to her line manager, Katharine was arrested under the Official Secrets Act. She argued that her actions had exposed serious wrongdoing and were necessary to prevent the deaths of British forces and Iraqis in an "illegal war".

Liberty took on her case – but when we asked to see the Attorney General’s advice on the legality of the war, the Government dropped it after just half an hour in court.

Crackdown on transparency

The Espionage Act is the latest in a string of government clampdowns on transparency.

Last year an attempt to restrict Freedom of Information requests was thwarted, thanks in large part to campaigning by the press.

But since then there have been reports of officials making false claims that they don’t hold information journalists have requested.

And then, of course, there's the Investigatory Powers Act, which has granted authorities powers to monitor every minute detail our lives. That law also makes it illegal to disclose the mere existence of warrants to intercept people’s communications.

Elsewhere, we’re hearing from journalists who’ve been blacklisted by government and Whitehall press offices for reporting statements made by ministers during on-the-record meetings, and who’ve faced investigations after publishing leaked documents revealing matters of genuine public interest.

They work for us

There are many, many stories it would suit the powerful to keep behind closed doors. If these proposals become law, keeping those doors firmly locked will be a whole lot easier. No scrutiny for them, no embarrassing revelations, no accountability.

We rely on people like Katharine Gun, Edward Snowden and the journalists they work with to have the courage to expose the worst corruption and wrongdoing.

They’re the watchdogs who hold our Government to account and – rightly – remind them every day that they work for us. They answer to us. And we have a right to know.

Whistleblowing and a free press are the beating heart of our democracy. If those in power are to deserve the public’s trust, they must end this assault on transparency now.

  • Liberty will publish its response to the Law Commission consultation next week.
Katie Bamber

Katie Bamber

Liberty
Communications Director