UNITED KINGDOM: Adverse amendments to Data Protection Bill dropped

(European Civic Forum on CIVICUS Monitor)

Press freedom groups welcomed news that amendments to the Data Protection Bill passed in May, with potentially adverse effects on press freedom would likely not go through. The proposed amendments were similar to Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, a development previouslyreported on the CIVICUS Monitor, where newspapers not registered with the state-backed regulator Impress would have been responsible for the payment of costs on both sides in any privacy disputes.

Nevertheless, the threat of such provisions on the agenda of future bills is not over. Speaking during the European Civic Forum, Reporters without Borders (RSF) UK Bureau Director, Rebecca Vincent, said:

“Press regulation remains an extremely divisive subject in the UK and is dominating the debate when it comes to press freedom. As a result, little attention is being paid to more pressing threats, such as measures being taken in the name of national security that trample press freedom. Section 40-style punitive provisions in any form remain worrying and should be opposed, but the full range of threats to press freedom in the UK must also be addressed”.

According to RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index, the UK “remains one of the worst-ranked Western European countries” and ranks 40th out of 180 countries globally, having dropped two places since 2017.  The country has declined of 10 places in the last eight years. Persisting challenges to freedom of expression include the Espionage Act and the Investigatory Powers Act (previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor), two laws which threaten the work of investigative journalists and more broadly freedom of expression.

Paradise papers litigation settled

On a positive note, in May 2018, BBC, the Guardian and Appleby agreed to a settlement in a lawsuit related to the Paradise Papers. In mid-December 2017, the offshore law firm, Appleby, sued the Guardian and the BBC for reporting the leaked documents known as the Paradise Papers that exposed several offshore tax heavens. Appleby asked for the disclosure of the documents at the base of their story and the payment of damages for the reporting of confidential papers acquired through a hack.

According to a joint statement:

“Without compromising their journalistic integrity or ability to continue to do public interest journalism, the Guardian and the BBC have assisted Appleby by explaining which of the company’s documents may have been used to underpin their journalism. This will allow Appleby to initiate meaningful discussions with its clients, colleagues and regulators.”

A spokesman for the Guardian commented:

“The Guardian’s reporting from the Paradise Papers is investigative journalism that has raised important issues in the public interest.”

The BBC said:

“We welcome this settlement which preserves our ability to carry out investigative journalism in the public interest.”