Thursday, August 30, 2012

Journalists need to wise up to secrecy laws

Journalists need to wise up to secrecy laws

October 18th 2011

I had a fantastic time at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Kiev last weekend. A huge well done to the organisers for a great four days, and I loved having the chance to meet so many interesting and interested people from across the world!

I was invited to give the opening keynote speech (video to follow), where I discussed some of my experiences from the MI5 whistleblowing years, but then went on to apply the harsh lessons learned to the current situation vis a vis the issue of spy influence on the media today and the thorny issue of whistleblowing and the protection of sources.

Part of my talk focused on the control of the media by the spies in Britain. As I have written before, this is very much a “carrot and stick” scenario: the soft aspect, of course, being cosy chats with selected journalists, well-timed career-enhancing scoops, as well as an increasingly unhealthy journalistic dependence on briefings coming out of the intelligence world and government.

The stick aspect includes the battery of harsh laws that can be called upon to suppress free reporting in the UK, which sometimes leads to self-censorship by the media. These laws include:

libel laws (Britain is notorious as the libel capital of the world);
Terrorism Act 2000;
Public Interest Immunity certificates (PIIs) or “gagging orders” issued by ministers;
production orders;
contempt of court proceedings;
the media self-censorship of the Defence Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (the infamous old “D” Notice system);
and of course the abusive use of the Official Secrets Act 1989

How do I know all this? Well, as you can see from many of the links in the above list, I’ve lived through much of this and have followed with great interest similar and related cases over the years. More information about these issues can be found in this excellent report produced by Article 19 and Liberty over a decade ago. The situation has not improved.

While in Kiev I attended an excellent session where two Russian journalists discussed the ramifications of reporting on the modern incarnation of the Russian intelligence agency, the FSB.

I was somewhat startled to hear that even in Russia journalists have more legal protection than those in the UK – ie they face no criminal legal sanction if they report whistleblower material from the Russian spy agencies. In the UK journalists potentially face 2 years in prison for doing so, under the invidious Section 5 of the 1989 OSA.

Way to go, British democracy.

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