(LifeSiteNews) — A law passed in the United Kingdom threatens to criminalize journalists who investigate matters of national security. Its sweeping new measures, including the power of arrest without warrant and the imposition of draconian penalties, criminalize the spreading of “disinformation” as part of the bill’s definition of threats to national security.
The National Security Act 2023 updates the U.K.’s previous legislation on espionage and sabotage. It came into effect on December 20, bringing into force the power to imprison for life anyone convicted of “obtaining or disclosing protected information.”
The act was passed by Parliament on July 11, 2023, and was announced with the following statement from the Home Office:
This new act brings together vital new measures to protect the British public, modernise counter-espionage laws and address the evolving threat to our national security.
These powers… mean the U.K. will be better equipped to tackle the full spectrum of malign activity, whether in the form of disinformation, cyber-attacks, electoral interference or even physical attacks, including the barbaric use of chemical weapons.
The act strongly invokes the defense of the British public, bracketing effective measures towards state censorship with atrocities.
These are the kind of “barbaric attacks” that journalists like Julian Assange have revealed to have been committed by the British government themselves. Assange himself faces life imprisonment, as his extradition to the United States appears to be going ahead.
His final appeal in the U.K. High Court is taking place on February 20 and 21. Assange is expected to die if his extradition to face charges under the U.S. Espionage Act proceeds.
The legislation appears to specifically target operations such as Wikileaks, which revealed the U.K. government’s involvement in human rights abuses and the killing of civilians. A Pentagon report found that no “strategic” harm had resulted from his disclosures.
Previous debates on the bill stressed the need to counter the threat of “Wikileaks-type mass-dumping of information in the public domain.”
Life imprisonment for journalism
As these debates took place, one independent journalist warned of the dangers to future reporting of government misdeeds, arguing that the bill “could undermine the basis of national security reporting and ultimately throw journalists in jail for life.”
Writing for Consortium News in July 2022, this is how Mohammed Elmazi described the new measures.
“Whistleblowers, journalists and publishers focusing on national security related matters may be most at risk of being prosecuted,” said Elmazi, pointing out the reach of the act could include “any person who ‘copies,’ ‘retains,’ ‘discloses,’ ‘distributes’ or ‘provides access to’ so called protected information” as liable for prosecution.
“Protected information” means “restricted material.” This may or may not be classified, and is a vague category allowing for broad interpretation. The act also includes redefinitions of crime.
Section 15 of the act, on “Prohibited Conduct,” includes the designation of “reputational damage” as a criminal offense.
This could refer to that suffered by former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the repeated disclosure of his role in sabotaging peace talks between Russia and Ukraine – as this reporter documented for LifeSiteNews on June 20, 2023.
The act may also apply to mention of U.K. special forces involvement in the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Reporting restrictions are already in place to prevent any mention of these operations.
In addition, the act criminalizes “causing spiritual injury to, or placing undue spiritual pressure on, a person”
No one knows what this means, what the scope of these definitions are, or how they may be applied. No prosecutions have yet been made, so the real reach of the act is currently unknown.
No ‘public interest defense’
There is no provision for a “public interest” defense in the act, which means writers or anyone who publishes material deemed illegal cannot defend themselves with the argument that the information they hold is of value to the public. This is the basis of an informed democracy, and the act has simply abolished it.
Under the act, British people have no right to know what the U.K. is doing in Ukraine or Israel – or anywhere else – unless that information comes from state approved sources.
Schedule 15 of the act provides an exemption for “recognized news publishers,” such as the BBC. It does not automatically protect anyone publishing information arguably in the public interest.
Tim Dawson, a long-time member of the National Union of Journalists’ National Executive Council told Consortium News:
The glaring omission at the heart of the National Security Bill is a straightforward public-interest defense, so that those who expose wrongdoing, either as whistleblowers or journalists, will be protected.
Without this, there is a risk of concerned U.K. citizens being prosecuted as though they were foreign spies.
As Kit Klarenberg reported for The Grayzone on February 9, “Indeed, the law’s terms are so broad, individuals will almost inevitably break the law without wanting to, intending to, or even knowing they have.”
Klarenberg, who was himself detained and interrogated by British police on his return to the U.K. last summer, continued:
Because no one has been prosecuted under the Act to date, its full ramifications remain unclear. However, London’s security and intelligence apparatus now enjoy far-reaching powers to police what can be said about the British government’s activities abroad.
He described his ordeal on Twitter at the time, with a section in his report on the National Security Act making for sobering reading.
British police detain journalist @KitKlarenberg, interrogate him about The Grayzone
Counter-terror police detained journalist Kit Klarenberg upon his arrival in London and subjected him to a 5 hour interrogation about his political views and reportinghttps://t.co/RmxZGY8efp pic.twitter.com/YftxSR1Cl0
— The Grayzone (@TheGrayzoneNews) May 31, 2023
According to Klarenberg:
As soon as the cops identified me, I was ordered to accompany them into the airport terminal without explanation. There, I was introduced to two officials whose names I could not learn, who subsequently referred to each other using nondescript callsigns.
I was digitally strip searched, and subjected to an interrogation in which I had no right to silence, no right to refuse to answer questions, and no right to withhold pin numbers for my digital devices or sim cards. If I asserted any rights to privacy, I faced arrest and up to 48 hours in police custody.
They fingerprinted me, took invasive DNA swabs, and probed every conceivable aspect of my private and professional life, friend and family connections, and educational background. They wanted to know why I write, say and think the things I do, the specifics of how I’m paid for my investigative journalism, and to which bank account.
Klarenberg points out that no mainstream media sources have reported on the dangers of the act, leaving independent journalists such as himself, and those of Consortium News, to raise the alarm.
The act advances an authoritarian trend in U.K. legislation, coming after renewed “anti-terror” laws of recent years.
A 2019 law which could bring “15 years in prison for clicking terrorist propaganda once” was introduced by then U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 was described the U.K. Parliament’s own Joint Committee on Human Rights as “a breach of the right to receive information and risks criminalising legitimate research and curiosity.”
U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy Professor Joe Cannataci said of the bill, “It seems to be pushing a bit too much towards thought crime.”
Cannataci noted this was a departure from the previous understanding of what a crime is, noting “the difference between forming the intention to do something and then actually carrying out the act is still fundamental to criminal law.”
These legislative measures redefine crime as the possession of information regardless of intent. With the attack on civil liberties encroaching on the thoughts and writings of its own citizens, how far will the British government go to protect the public from the dangers of wrongthink?