Journalists in UK Face Prison For Public Interest Disclosures

May 8, 2017

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Journalists and whistleblowers could face imprisonment for revealing information that should already be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it was claimed today.

Maurice Frankel
, the director of Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFoI), told his members that the Law Commission review of UK official secrecy legislation currently underway could have dramatic implications.

He said: “Its provisional proposals would make it easier to convict officials who release information without permission and journalists and others who publish that information.”

Prison for Revealing Information

Should the proposals be adopted it would no longer be necessary to show that a disclosure was “likely” to harm protected interests to commit an offence under the 1989 Official Secrets Act.

Revealing information that the discloser should have known was “capable” of causing such harm would be enough for a conviction, even if that harm was extremely unlikely.

But information which is unlikely to cause harm would have to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act if requested, Mr Frankel argues.

Maximum Prison Sentences

The CFoI, together with ARTICLE 19, the press freedom campaign, have responded to the Law Commission’s proposals setting out these implications:

  • Whistleblowers and journalists could be convicted for revealing information about defence, international relations or law enforcement that is unlikely to cause harm
  • Leaking information that anyone could obtain by making an FOI request could be an offence
  • It would not be a defence to show that the information had already lawfully been made public under the FOI Act – unless the information had also been ‘widely disseminated’
  • Officials may become reluctant to discuss disclosed information for fear of committing an offence
  • Someone revealing danger to the public, abuse of power or serious misconduct would not be able to defend themselves by arguing that they acted in the public interest
  • Maximum prison sentences on conviction, currently 2 years, would be increased.

The CFoI is now asking the public for small donations to support its campaign to prevent the proposals becoming law, and to “strengthen the public’s right to know”.

Mr Frankel added: “The Campaign is a tiny but highly focused organisation. We have only two staff – but between us have worked for the Campaign for a total of 49 years.

“This gives us a unique perspective in campaigning for greater openness, providing expert assistance to requesters and helping people learn how to use FOIA.”