STORIES that embarrass the UK Government could land journalists in prison under proposals to change the Official Secrets Act, it has emerged.

The Home Office is running a consultation on changes to the 1989 act in an effort to take changes like the digital landscape into consideration.

Their proposals suggest journalists who deal with leaked documents should be treated in the same way as the people who leak the information, or people who have committed espionage offences. Maximum sentences for journalists reporting on public interest matters could be increased from two to 14 years.

The Home Office says it is not putting reporters at risk, and they will “remain free to hold the Government to account”.

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The department doesn’t believe there is “necessarily a distinction in severity between espionage and the most serious unauthorised disclosures, in the same way that there was in 1989”.

“Although there are differences in the mechanics of and motivations behind espionage and unauthorised disclosure offences, there are cases where an unauthorised disclosure may be as or more serious, in terms of intent and/or damage,” it said.

“For example, documents made available online can now be accessed and utilised by a wide range of hostile actors simultaneously, whereas espionage will often only be to the benefit of a single state or actor.”

Law campaigners have recommended introducing a public interest defence to people charged under the Official Secrets Act – the Home office has said it would consider that “in further detail” but hasn’t taken it forward yet. They are concerned such a defence could “undermine our efforts to prevent damaging unauthorised disclosures, which would not be in the public interest”.

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In the consultation document, the Home Office states: “Press freedom is an integral part of the UK’s democratic processes, as is the ability for individuals to whistleblow and hold organisations to account, when there are serious allegations of wrongdoing.

“However, a balance must be struck with safeguarding official information (including national security information), where its compromise could harm the UK, its citizens or interests, given the unlawful disclosure and/or subsequent publishing of sensitive documents can lead to serious harm in many cases. We are not convinced that the Law Commission’s recommendations strike the right balance in this area.”

The National Union of Journalists has responded to the proposals, with general secretary Michelle Stanistreet saying: “We remain fundamentally opposed to any moves by the state that would make it harder to report on national security or poses harsher penalties for journalists, their sources and whistleblowers.”

Meanwhile Maurice Frankel of the Freedom of Information Campaign described the plans as “disproportionate and oppressive”.

Douglas Henshall, the Scottish actor and star of Shetland, called the plan “actual fascism”.

Labour councillor Maurice Mcleod drew comparisons between the Official Secret Act plan and the Policing Bill, which places controversial curbs on protests in England.

“This Gov has brought in new laws to make being a nuisance on a demo a crime, rules which will make it harder for some communities to vote and now they want to jail journalists who hold them to account,” he wrote. “No one notices a pattern no?”

“Just reading about Hungary where they’re banning protests, pushing through voter suppression and thinking of imprisoning journalists for 14 years and oh sorry that’s us,” added David Schneider.

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A Home Office spokesman said: “Freedom of press is an integral part of the UK's democratic processes and the Government is committed to protecting the rights and values that we hold so dear.

“It is wrong to claim the proposals will put journalists at risk of being treated like spies and they will, rightly, remain free to hold the Government to account.

“We will introduce new legislation so security services and law enforcement agencies can tackle evolving state threats and protect sensitive data.

“However, this will be balanced to protect press freedom and the ability for whistleblowers to hold organisations to account when there are serious allegations of wrongdoing.”