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1990: Secrets act gags whistleblowers

Whistleblowers and journalists risk prosecution from today if they disclose information the British government considers to be damaging to defence or the country's interests abroad.

The new Official Secrets Act replaces section two of the 1911 act, under which it was a criminal offence to disclose information without lawful authority.

The new act makes it an offence for any member, or former member, of the security services to disclose official information about their work. It is also an offence for a journalist to repeat any such disclosures.

The areas covered by the act include releasing information on defence, international relations, security service activities, foreign confidences and information that might lead to a crime being committed.

Blanket ban

The maximum penalties for breaking the new law are two years' imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both.

The blanket ban on giving away official secrets will also apply to some civil servants.

There will be no public interest defence, so an official would not be able to argue in court that they broke the law in the national interest.

The tightening of the law governing official secrets follows the Clive Ponting case in 1985.

The civil servant was charged, but acquitted, of breaking the 1911 secrets act after leaking two documents about the sinking of the Argentine ship, the General Belgrano, during the Falklands war.

Ministers had misled the public into thinking the ship was threatening British lives, when in fact it was sailing away from the battle zone when it was attacked.

Although the judge advised jurors to prosecute, they ignored his advice and Mr Ponting was let off.

Other high-profile cases followed including the whistleblower Cathy Massiter, who escaped prosecution despite revealing in 1985 that MI5 were illegally tapping the phones of public figures, human rights campaigners and pressure groups.

In 1987 the government mounted a huge legal battle to prevent the publication of former MI5 officer Peter Wright's memoirs. But Spycatcher was published in the US and Australia and copies found their way into Britain.

In Context
Since the new act came into force the government has achieved a number of legal successes.

In 1997, former MI6 officer Richard Tomlinson was sentenced to a year in prison for passing secrets to an Australian publisher.

In 2002 former MI5 officer David Shayler was jailed for six months for passing intelligence service information to a newspaper.

However in February 2004 Katherine Gun, a GCHQ translator, had charges of leaking American plans to bug UN diplomats before the war in Iraq dropped.

On 1 January 2005 the Freedom of Information Act came into force. It allows the public to access documents about the workings of government and other public bodies.

It is meant to make government more transparent although documents relating to national security or other sensitive information will remain confidential.

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