New Law Threatens Press Freedom and Whistleblowers, Favours Corporate Secrecy

Newspaper and glasses

The UK government is considering a law that would make it easier for companies to sue whistleblowers and journalists for scrutinising corporate activity.

In a letter to business minister Sam Gyimah, a coalition of NGOs, campaigners, and independent media express their concern over the “legal ambiguity about protection for whistle-blowers in the UK” as well as potential restrictions on reporting sensitive commercial deals. The letter was signed by 18 organisations, including DeSmog UK.

The UK government is currently transposing the 2016 EU directive on “trade secrets protection” into national law. There are fears that in its current form, major stories could go unreported due to the special statues of ‘trade secrets’, which threatens the rights of whistle-blowers and the ability of reporters to expose wrongdoing.

The letter to the minister  points out that the EU directive was subject to corporate capture, and highlights the need for sufficient protection for those that wish to expose corporate wrongdoing in the public interest.

The UK government argues that it does not need to introduce any of the EU safeguards because they are already present in UK law. But the development of the EU directive “was undertaken with the cooperation of, and major inputs from, large commercial interests, and the European Parliament was not able to subsequently amend the directive sufficiently so as to place the public interest centre-stage”, the letter said.

This included lobbying by companies including DuPont, General Electric and Nestle through a group called the Trade Secrets & Innovation Coalition (TSIC).

The coalition points to the infamous Lux Leaks story as an example of what happens when trade secrets are given undue weight in the legal process.

The investigation exposed the widespread use of corporate tax ‘optimisation’ schemes in deals struck between the Big Four accountancy firms and the Luxembourg government. Three years on, no company has been prosecuted. But the two whistle-blowers and a journalist were prosecuted and faced years of legal uncertainty.

Campaigners claim the draft legislation may also inadvertently lead to public authorities being more cautious when answering Freedom of Information requests and releasing information provided to them by companies, for fear of provoking costly legal action.

Vicky Cann, campaigner with Corporate Europe Observatory, told DeSmog UK:

“The current draft threatens to create confusion and even a chill-effect on those who act in the public interest to expose corporate wrong-doing.

We call on the UK government to ensure that whistleblowers, journalists, and trade unionists receive full protection under these new regulations.”

Here is the letter in full:

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