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National Security Bill – an assault on our civil liberties

Scales of justice

by Nikola Bryce (Workers GB Writers Group)

Against a backdrop of the NATO proxy war in Ukraine, the National Security Bill (NSB) is currently making its way through Parliament. Intended to replace and modernise outdated counter-espionage laws, the bill aims to protect UK security interests against those acting on behalf of foreign states, enabling law enforcement and intelligence agencies to “deter, detect and disrupt” threats to the UK.

This bill, if left in its current form, threatens to gag journalists in what is an already overly curated media. The NSB is causing concern not only amongst journalist. The whistleblowers charity Protect, The Campaign for Freedom of Information and Article 19 have each made submissions to the Government identifying a number of serious issues with the legislation. NGOs, academia and other organisations who receive funding to some degree from foreign governments are also concerned.

Critics of the NSB complain of terms such as, “purpose of protecting the safety or interest of the United Kingdom,” used or implied throughout the bill, are too broad and vague and have no commonly understood definition.

Proper statutory safeguarding is not included and the omission of a public interest defence is deeply concerning as it deprives journalists of a legal defence in the context of secrecy laws, enabling them to avoid criminality by establishing that the public interest in disclosure of the information outweighs the public interest in nondisclosure. However despite the Law Commission recommendation for its inclusion this omission has so far not been rectified. Without such protection it could, as the NUJ alleges: “see journalists labelled as spies and given lengthy jail sentences for simply doing their jobs.”

We could see a chilling in investigative journalism and whistleblowing. For instance reporting on the activities of Government ministers could become a criminal offence as whistleblowers’ actions may be construed as assisting a foreign power.

The bill, under the provision ‘Unauthorised Entry to a Prohibited Place’ is also said to be in danger of creating an unfair two-tier system, where UK journalists working for a foreign based employer could be criminalised for reporting or photographing a particular subject which is in the public interest, whereas a journalist working for a UK employer would not.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights points out the bill as it currently stands could: “criminalise behaviour that does not constitute a threat to national security,“ and “Interfere unnecessarily and disproportionately with rights to freedom of expression and association.”

On the one hand journalist and other groups may find themselves facing a massive hike in sentencing, from 2 years currently under the Official Secrets Act 1989, to 14 years imprisonment for foreign interference and life imprisonment for espionage. Whilst on the other, there are clauses granting and extending existing criminal immunity for encouraging or assisting the commission of offences overseas which, as Baroness Jones succinctly pointed out, in the Lords second debate, “…undermines the rule of law and our international reputation by shielding ministers and officials from accountability for serious crimes such as torture…”

The FT summarised the current state of the NSB in their editorial: “Bad drafting is not the result of carelessness but of wilful vagueness designed to evade accountability — exactly the kind of accountability that public interest journalism bolsters.”

In a Government whose legacy has been one of sleaze, lies and corruption, the jailing and torture of Julian Assange, should we be at all surprised when they legislate to criminalise truth?

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