English PEN calls for public interest defence in UK official secrets laws

English PEN, Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders have made a joint submission to the Law Commission's consultation on the protection of official data

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On World Press Freedom Day, English PEN, Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders – known internationally as Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) have published their joint submission to the Law Commission’s Consultation on the Protection of Official Data. The free speech and press freedom groups welcome the opportunity to review legislation that is long overdue for reform, following the significant changes in the collection, retention and sharing of data over the past 20 years and the challenges facing both privacy and freedom of expression in the digital age.

In the joint submission, English PEN, Index on Censorship and RSF emphasisethe importance of ensuring that official secrets legislation is fit for purpose. They argue that any reform must take account of the potential impact on legitimate activities pursued in the public interest, including the activities of investigative journalists and the sources upon whom they rely. They consider that the Law Commission’s provisional conclusions with respect to protection of public interest disclosures are inadequate and reject the proposal for a statutory commissioner as an inadequate mechanism for safeguarding the public interest.

Read the submission

The groups disagree with the Law Commission’s conclusion that the problems associated with the introduction of a statutory public interest defence outweigh the benefits and do not support the view that there are already sufficient existing safeguards for journalists. They submit that there should be no category of protected information created for sensitive economic information.

Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN, said:

This is an important opportunity to reform official secrets legislation and make it fit for the 21st century. Our response to the consultation demonstrates that it is both viable and necessary to include a public interest defence. Some of the most important news stories of the past seven years have been based on leaks of classified information that are squarely in the public interest and have resulted in critical public debate about foreign policy, privacy and freedom of expression. These laws go back to the Edwardian era and it’s vital that we now have legislation for our times.

Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, said:

It makes sense to update outmoded laws but no sense whatsoever to update them in such a way that they undermine the very liberties and freedoms on which our rule of law is based. The proposals laid out by the Law Commission threaten free expression and in particular a free media in the UK and should not be implemented in their current form.

Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director for RSF, said:

The Law Commission’s proposal is nothing short of alarming, particularly when viewed in the context of a broader trend of worrying moves against press freedom in the UK over the past year, resulting in the UK dropping to a ranking of 40th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. The prospect of journalists being labelled as ‘spies’ and facing the threat of serious jail time for simply doing their jobs in the public interest is outrageous. This proposal must be revised with respect for press freedom at its core.

English PEN, Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders would like to thank barristers Can Yeginsu and Anthony Jones of 4 New Square Chambers, as well as Tom Francis of Joseph Hage Aaronson LLP, for their assistance in preparing this submission.

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