Law to Imprison Journalists for Publishing Leaks

A new law designed to tackle international espionage could also be used to imprison British journalists who obtain leaked material. The proposed Espionage Act, which is currently under consultation by the UK Law Commission, would make it easier to prosecute news organisations which publish classified material.

Under the new law, journalists could be imprisoned for up to 14 years for publishing information that is "capable of benefiting a foreign power."

While government officials have previously been prosecuted for leaking such information, the new offence would target those who publish it as well.

According to the consultation: "The offence should be capable of being committed by someone who not only communicates information, but also by someone who obtains or gathers it."

Campaigners have called on the government to introduce specific protections for journalists in the law. However, the consultation advises against this.

"The legal safeguards that currently exist are sufficient to protect journalistic activity without the need for a statutory public interest defence," it concludes.

"In addition, it is our view that the introduction of a statutory public interest defence solely for journalists could be considered arbitrary, given that there are other professionals who might violate the criminal law in the pursuit of their legitimate activities."

Sentences for some convictions under the Official Secrets Act are currently capped at two years. However, under the new Espionage Act these would be extended.

"We provisionally conclude that the maximum sentences currently available for the offences contained in the Official Secrets Act 1989 are not capable of reflecting the potential harm and culpability that may arise in a serious case."

The act also seeks to target journalists who republish information that has been leaked elsewhere. The consultation concludes that: "a defence of prior publication should be available only if the defendant proves that the information in question was in fact already lawfully in the public domain and widely disseminated to the public."

The new legislation has been drafted in response to the rise of cyber warfare and the targeted hacking of government information systems.

The Official Secrets Act has only rarely been used against journalists. However, it was used by the Metropolitan Police in 2011 in an attempt to force the Guardian newspaper to reveal their sources for their phone hacking investigations.

The paper's then editor Alan Rusbridger suggested the new Espionage Act would make it easier to target journalists.

"It is alarming that such a far-reaching proposed reform of laws which could be used to jail whistleblowers and journalists should have been drafted without any adequate consultation with free speech organisations," Rusbridger told the Register.

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