Whistle-blowers and journalists face prison for revealing information that could be obtained under FOI

The Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) and ARTICLE 19 (the organisation which campaigns for freedom of expression and freedom of information) warn that new proposals by the Law Commission to reform the 1989 Official Secrets Act (OSA) could lead to the imprisonment of civil servants and journalists for disclosing information that would be available to anyone asking for it under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Law Commission is proposing to make it easier to secure convictions under the 1989 OSA by weakening the test for proving an offence. But the proposed weaker test would catch information that would have to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, say the CFOI and ARTICLE 19.

In a joint response to the Law Commission proposals, ARTICLE 19 and the CFOI are concerned that:

  • Whistle-blowers and journalists could be convicted for revealing information about defence, international relations or law enforcement that is unlikely to cause harm.

  • Leaking information that anyone could obtain by making an FOI request could be an offence.

  • It would not be a defence to show that the information had already lawfully been made public under the FOI Act or otherwise - unless the information had also been ‘widely disseminated’.

  • Someone revealing danger to the public, abuse of power or serious misconduct would not be able to argue that they acted in the public interest.

  • Maximum prison sentences on conviction, currently 2 years, would be increased.

CFOI Director, Maurice Frankel, said: "These proposals are not only oppressive but unworkable. It is beyond common sense to make it an Official Secrets offence to leak information which anyone could obtain under FOI. The proposals would deter officials from discussing information that has lawfully been made public. It will set the FOI Act and the Official Secrets Act on a collision course. It is not the Law Commission’s job to make an ass of the law but that’s what its proposals would do."