Feb 2017

What is the proposed Espionage Act all about?

Written by Paul Maher

What is the proposed Espionage Act all about?

Espionage. Spies. Infiltrators. No, I’m not talking about the real-life James Bond. Or Jason Bourne. Or even MI6. In fact, I’m talking about our journalist friends and whistleblowers who will feel the full force of the law if the Government’s proposed Espionage Act becomes legal. You may not have heard about it, but the draconian Act, essentially, is aimed at making it easier to prosecute news outlets. In the Government’s bid to combat the amount of sensitive data disclosed to the public, those which publish ‘classified’ materials are on Number 10’s radar.

In modern day terms, the word espionage relates to people like Edward Snowden, the world’s most infamous whistleblower, and Chelsea Manning, the recently pardoned former-US soldier. A whistleblower is a person who leaks sensitive information deemed illegal or unethical from either a public or private organisation. Rather than evoking images of James Bond. Snowden’s antics certainly led to ‘espionage’ being thrust into the public eye after he helped transform global understanding about the vast scale of secret Government surveillance. Clearly, our Government is determined to stop another ‘Snowden’ style breach.
The proposals for the updated Espionage Act, which could result in jail time for journalists, means leaking and whistleblowing would be classed with the same severity as spying for foreign powers: 14 years in jail, extended from two. Fourteen years is not only the same punishment for journalists as foreign intelligence spies, it’s also the same as ‘placing explosives with intent to cause bodily injury’…
Additionally, the decree would apply even if the leaker is not British (a clear swipe at Snowden), and there is also no public interest protections for journalists. You could even be sentenced just for obtaining or gathering information, without the intent to publish. Republishing already leaked information would also be considered a crime.
Considering our British journalist friends beat back the Government outcry after publishing Snowden’s revelations in 2013, the Espionage Act threatens to take ‘power from the people’. If the planned law had been in force in 2013, the Cabinet Office would have been able to throw the journalists who published Snowden’s documents, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill, in jail. Even if they didn’t publish their stories, simply handling copies of the documents would have been enough.
Here’s what the former editor in chief of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, thinks:

Without doubt, protecting national security is important, but should it really come at the expense of investigative journalism and ethics in a democratic society?
Speaking about the Snowden effect, Jim Killock, chief executive of the Open Rights Group (ORG), told The Reg: “Public-interest whistleblowing is vital to society. Without it no one could have known the secret scale of global surveillance“. Killock also says, “The intention is to stop the public from ever knowing that any secret agency has ever broken the law.”
Next time we’ll discuss the implications should the Act stealth its way into the law books. Keep your eyes peeled.

Our newsletter

Sign up to our monthly industry insights