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Secrets law reform means journalists ‘at risk of prison’

19th May 2017

Civil servants and journalists could face imprisonment for disclosing information that would otherwise be available to anyone asking for it via the Freedom of Information Act, due to proposals by the Law Commission to reform the 1989 Official Secrets Act (OSA). This warning comes from a leading campaigner for freedom of information.

Campaign groups Article 19 and Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFoI) spoke out in a joint response to the Law Commission reform proposal, saying that the modernisation and simplification of the law surrounding the protection of official data  ‘would go a long way towards turning the clock back towards the discredited section 2 of the 1911 Official Secrets Act.’

Originally, the criminalisation of wrongful communication of information was put into effect by section 2 of the 1911 Act, which was replaced by the 1989 version following the unsuccessful conviction by jury members of a Ministry of Defence civil servant for passing information to an MP. The Law Commission have now proposed replacing the original 1911 Official Secrets Act with a single ‘Espionage Act’. The proposals would ‘include greater safeguards for whistle-blowers than under the current laws whilst also ensuring that Britain is protected in the 21st century’, the commission claimed.

However, Maurice Frankel, director of the CFoI and experienced freedom of information campaigner commented that this would ‘set the FOI Act and the Official Secrets Act on a collision course.’

According to Frankel, the laws proposed would make it an offence punishable by incarceration to leak information which anyone could obtain already under the Freedom of Information act. The prosecution would merely have to show that the information was ‘capable’ of causing damage in order to have journalists or civil servants punished.

‘A disclosure which might cause damage but is extremely unlikely to do so would become an offence under these proposals if the discloser knew or had reasonable grounds to believe that damage was possible,’ he continued.