LONDON: The UK government on Friday defended its stance regarding its proposed overhaul of the Official Secrets Act and claimed that freedom of the press is an integral part of the UK’s democratic processes.
“It is wrong to claim the proposals will put journalists at risk of being treated like spies and they will, rightly, remain free to hold the government to account,” a Home Office spokesperson told Arab News.
“We will introduce new legislation so security services and law enforcement agencies can tackle evolving state threats and protect sensitive data,” the spokesperson added. “However, this will be balanced to protect press freedom and the ability for whistleblowers to hold organizations to account when there are serious allegations of wrongdoing.”
In early July, the UK government proposed new legislation to counter state threats which included an overhaul of the Official Secrets Act, legislation that essentially guarantees the protection of state secrets and official information.
According to the government, the proposed legislation is largely intended to modernize existing counter-espionage laws and improve the government’s ability to protect official data.
The proposed reforms target the Official Secrets Acts of 1911, 1920 and 1939, which outline the main espionage offences, as well as the Official Secrets Act 1989, which governs the law around the “unauthorized disclosure of official material and its onward disclosure.”
The move has caused a major stir in the British media, where it is being widely interpreted as having serious consequences for journalists and their ability to hold governments to account.
Some media outlets claimed that the legislation, if passed, will effectively treat journalists like spies and mean that the government can treat cases of unauthorized disclosure and acts of espionage in essentially the same way.
While the UK government does equate acts of espionage to cases of unauthorized disclosure in terms of severity, it nevertheless highlighted in the new legislation document that “there are differences in the mechanics of, and motivations behind, espionage and unauthorized disclosure offences.”
The announcement came shortly after the homes of two people were raided in England last week by police officers and officials from the Information Commissioner’s Office in connection to the leak of compromising security-camera footage of former health minister Matt Hancock and his aide Gina Coladangelo in his ministerial office.
If passed, the new legislation would mean such leaks would be classed as dangerous and criminal.
In the past, the Official Secrets Act was used to prosecute individuals responsible for revealing sensitive information — about the activities of security services, for instance — to newspapers.
The Home Office stressed that work on the legislation is still “ongoing and has not reached a conclusion.”