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A world without whistleblowers

Whistleblowers - a threat to national security, or an essential part of bringing government activities to light and opening them up to scrutiny?

Secrecy legislation in the UK is set to change, with proposals that director of English PEN Jo Glanville said will have “a chilling effect” on freedom of expression and press freedom.

Prison sentences for whistleblowers could increase from two to 14 years, as laws around the protection of official documents are reviewed. Under the proposals, anyone leaking official documents will not be able to use the defence that they were acting in the public interest.

Guardian Journalist and author Luke Harding has called the crackdown on whistleblowers “a disaster” and said that we need them now more than ever: “Without them, we would never know about the spying capabilities of the NSA and GCHQ as revealed by Edward Snowden, or about the super rich hiding their money overseas. It's an alarming, backwards step."

Edward Snowden revealed the extent of mass surveillance in the UK and US, bringing to public attention something he could not keep secret in good conscience. Stories have been broken and public knowledge shaped by whistleblowers, without whom secret activities might stay hidden.

Jo Glanville said that the overhaul might result in fewer people coming forward with important information: “It always takes tremendous courage and principle to blow the whistle. As we’ve seen with Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning – it comes at a very high price.”

With journalists also in danger of being prosecuted, she said the changes will have an impact on press freedom: “It takes a lot of courage to break the law, even in the public interest. The increase in the sentences is likely to make editors more wary.”

The consultation paper published by the Law Commission suggests changes aiming to meet 21st century challenges, including acknowledging the role technology now plays in leaking information. A public consultation is now open.

The Official Secrets Acts date back to 1911, when the main focus was national security threats from Germany ahead of WWI. A second Official Secrets Act was created in 1989, but before the digital landscape had fully evolved.

While the English PEN director agrees that the laws do need an overhaul for a new digital era, she argues for “enlightened legislation” and the inclusion of a public interest defence.

She said the public will play an important role “campaigning for liberalising official secrets legislation.” The public can have an impact on the outcome by responding to the consultation, which is open until 3 April.

“The government has clearly been stung by the outcry, so let’s hope that they think twice before introducing illiberal laws.

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