The UK government is considering much harsher penalties for whistleblowers and journalists that obtain or share state secrets.
As it stands today, those convicted of disclosing secrets face a maximum of two years behind bars and an unlimited fine. The revised laws could bump the time spent in jail to as many as 14 years and would no doubt have people thinking twice before going public with leaks.
Jodie Ginsberg of the UK’s Index on Censorship told The Telegraph that the proposed changes are frightening and have no place in a democracy that relies on having mechanisms to hold the powerful to account. Ginsberg added that it is unthinkable that whistleblowers and those to whom they reveal their information should face jail for leaking and receiving information that is in the public interest.
Jim Killock, chief executive of the Open Rights Group, agrees, noting that the idea seems to be to criminalize the act of handing leaked documents which would prevent the public from knowing the government is breaking the law. In other words, Killock said, it is a clear attempt to criminalize ordinary journalism.
As The Verge highlights, under the suggested laws, Alan Rusbridger, the former editor for The Guardian that helped publish parts of Edward Snowden’s haul in 2013, could have faced criminal charges for publishing the leaked documents.
A Law Commission spokesperson told Engadget that it was both “misleading and incorrect” to suggest journalists would be at more risk under the proposed rules. The current offenses in the Official Secrets Act are broad, the spokesperson said, adding that they are seeking views on how the law could meet 21st century challenges while ensuring people don’t accidentally commit serious offenses.
The proposal is in an advisory state through early April.
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