Proposal Set To Increase Prison Sentences For Leaking Official Documents

Update: 27 Mar 2020 State replied
Year 14 Feb 2017 Country United Kingdom Category Other acts having chilling effects on media freedom Source of threat State Partner EFJ/IFJ , AEJ , Index , IPI , RSF Alert level Level 2
14 Feb 2017 United Kingdom Other acts having chilling effects on media freedom State EFJ/IFJ , AEJ , Index , IPI , RSF Level 2

On 2 February 2017, the UK Law Commission responded to a government request for draft recommendations to overhaul and update the Official Secrets Act by submitting proposals which could lead to journalists and whistleblowers being jailed up to 14 years, instead of up to two years as at present, for leaking official documents. The major overhaul of the Official Secrets Act – to be replaced by an updated Espionage Act – would give courts the power to increase jail terms against journalists for “obtaining sensitive information”, as well as “passing it on”. The Law Commission, which was set up by parliament to review legislation and make recommendations for reforms, also proposed that the scope of the law should be expanded to include offences committed by people other than British nationals. The public can respond and make comments on the recommendations until 3 April. The National Union of Journalists' (NUJ) General secretary Michelle Stanistreet denounced the attempt by the UK government to curtail the media.

Updates

01 Dec 2017 : On 24 November 2017, the Law Commission confirmed that, as replies to the open public consultation were being analysed, proposals to reform and rewrite the Official Secrets Acts were postponed until September 2018.
15 May 2017 : On 1 March 2017, a motion tabled by Member of Parliament Helen Goodman (Labour) expressed concerns with the Law Commission’s recommendations, noting the vital importance of whistleblowers for democracy, press freedom and the well-being of the public.
10 Feb 2017 : On 2 February 2017, the Law Commission published a consultation paper suggesting ways to improve the law on the ‘Protection of Official Data’, thus opening a public consultation until 3 May 2017.

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20 March 2018

On 20 March 2018, the European Court of Human Rights issued its Grand chamber judgment on Mehmet Altan’s case. The Court found there had been a violation of Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security) and a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention for Human Rights. With regards to article 5 §1, according to the Court findings, “Mr Altan’s continued pre-trial detention, after the Constitutional Court’s clear and unambiguous judgment of 11 January 2018 (…), could not be regarded as ‘lawful’ ”. The Court held that “for another court to call into question the powers conferred on a constitutional court to give final and binding judgments on individual applications ran counter to the fundamental principles of the rule of law and legal certainty, which (…) were the cornerstones of the guarantees against arbitrariness”. Under Article 10, the Court held in particular that “there was no reason to reach a different conclusion from that of the Constitutional Court, which had found that Mr Altan’s initial and continued pre-trial detention, following his expression of his opinions, constituted a severe measure that could not be regarded as a necessary and proportionate interference in a democratic society”. The Court pointed out in particular that “criticism of governments and publication of information regarded by a country’s leaders as endangering national interests should not attract criminal charges for particularly serious offences such as belonging to or assisting a terrorist organisation, attempting to overthrow the government or the constitutional order or disseminating terrorist propaganda”.

20 March 2018

On 20 March 2018, the European Court of Human Rights issued its Grand chamber judgment on Şahin Alpay’s case. The Court found there had been a violation of Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security) and a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention for Human Rights. With regards to article 5 §1, according to the Court findings, “Mr Alpay’s continued pre-trial detention, after the Constitutional Court’s clear and unambiguous judgment of 11 January 2018 (…), could not be regarded as ‘lawful’ ”. The Court held that “for another court to call into question the powers conferred on a constitutional court to give final and binding judgments on individual applications ran counter to the fundamental principles of the rule of law and legal certainty, which (…) were the cornerstones of the guarantees against arbitrariness”. Under Article 46 (binding force and execution of judgments) of the Convention, the Court held that it was incumbent on the respondent State to ensure the termination of Mr Alpay’s pre-tria detention at the earliest possible date. Under Article 10, the Court held in particular that “there was no reason to reach a different conclusion from that of the Constitutional Court, which had found that Mr Alpay’s initial and continued pre-trial detention, following his expression of his opinions, constituted a severe measure that could not be regarded as a necessary and proportionate interference in a democratic society”. The Court pointed out in particular that “criticism of governments and publication of information regarded by a country’s leaders as endangering national interests should not attract criminal charges for particularly serious offences such as belonging to or assisting a terrorist organisation, attempting to overthrow the government or the constitutional order or disseminating terrorist propaganda”.
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