The new legislation is designed to address serious new threats that have only emerged since the start of the 21st century. There is no question that the growth of the internet has posed challenges to UK security. This, combined with the direct hostility of Russia and the growing geopolitical significance of China, has led to concern in Whitehall about the suitability of existing legislation.
The Home Office claims that the new bill “completely overhauls and updates our outdated espionage laws” – a bold assertion. It also promises a “range of new and modernised offences, with updated investigative powers and capabilities”. These, it says, will “ensure those on the front line of our defence will be able to do even more to counter state threats”.
Such language is designed to instil maximum reassurance in the face of a terrifying and unspecified threat from a hostile foreign government.
But where are the limits to such legislation?
Public interest defence
Our coalition has identified several areas of concern, but chief among them is the chilling effect the new legislation will have on the practice of investigative journalism. The absence of meaningful free-expression protections means that whistleblowers in government will be further deterred from disclosing official wrongdoing.
The new legislation makes it clear that those in receipt of information or documents deemed to benefit foreign powers will face the most severe penalties – up to a maximum of life imprisonment. Although ministers gave assurances under questioning that these measures are not designed to target journalists, such protections are not written into the legislation. The decision to prosecute would ultimately lie with the attorney general of the day.
In the face of such sweeping measures, we are demanding the introduction of a public interest defence to increase protections for those exposing genuine wrongdoing in the sphere of national security.
Fundamental to the concerns of our coalition are the so-called “foreign power conditions” woven throughout the new legislation. Our fear is that the measures are so broadly drawn that journalists and free-speech organisations could be swept up in a future crackdown.
The scope of the National Security Bill as presently drafted is so vast that any organisation receiving foreign funding – including foreign news services – could be caught up by it.
Democracy depends on vibrant and critical journalism. The UK government should resist the desire to sacrifice media freedom on the altar of national security.
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