Journalists and whistleblowers could face lengthy prison sentences for exposing information in the public interest under new proposals put forward by the government, industry leaders have warned.
Under Priti Patel the Home Office has opened a consultation on planned changes to the Official Secrets Act that could see reporters treated like spies or those who leak information.
The proposals include hiking maximum sentences from two years to 14 years.
But the News Media Association (NMA), which represents British newspapers, hit out at the “draconian measures”, warning they would “open the floodgates to the media and its sources being prosecuted despite acting in the public interest”.
It added that the law change will deter whistleblowers from coming forward with vital information in the public interest.
“As part of any thriving democracy, the public and a responsible press must be free to shed light on the state’s injustices,” said NMA legal policy and regulatory affairs director Sayra Tekin.
“The proposed measures will deter whistle blowers from coming forward with vital information which the public have a right to know and place a chill on investigative journalism which holds power to account.
“We strongly urge the government to reconsider these measures and instead work with the industry to place appropriate protections for journalism at the heart of the Official Secrets Act so that freedom of speech is enhanced by the new regime rather than weakened further.”
A Home Office spokesperson said it was wrong to say journalists would be treated like spies, adding that they would remain free to hold the government to account.
Under the proposals, the requirement to demonstrate damage to prosecute journalists and whistleblowers would be replaced with a “subjective fault element”, which the NMA said would be vulnerable to “widespread abuse” by people hoping to cover up embarrassing stories.
Instead, it said the government should include a public interest defence that would allow matters in the public interest to be properly scrutinised and debated.
It comes after the UK data watchdog launched a raid on two homes in connection with the Sun’s scoop on Matt Hancock’s affair, raising concerns about the protection of journalistic sources.
Further fears of receding press freedoms have emerged following revelations that a string of high-profile journalists, including the editor of the FT, were named as potential targets of an Israeli spyware company.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Freedom of press is an integral part of the UK’s democratic processes and the government is committed to protecting the rights and values that we hold so dear.
“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. We will introduce new legislation so security services and law enforcement agencies can tackle evolving state threats and protect sensitive data. However, this will be balanced to protect press freedom and the ability for whistleblowers to hold organisations to account when there are serious allegations of wrongdoing.”