Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Freedom of expression

I was going to paraphrase this press release from Article 19, but it says it all perfectly, so I shall just copy it here:

The government is imposing new restrictions on the right of former diplomats to
freedom of speech. They will now be required to pledge that they will never
publish any information relating to their experiences in the Diplomatic Service.
These restrictions are excessively strict and will reduce the public’s right to
access important information regarding foreign affairs.

The new rules are formed out of a desire to escape the controversy and criticism
created by the published memoirs of some former British ambassadors such as Sir
Christopher Meyer and Craig Murray. The critical and sensitive information present
in their published memoirs regarding the Iraq War and British-American policy in
Uzbekistan respectively caused embarrassment for the British Foreign Office.


It is understandable, and indeed valid under international law, that the
government should wish to monitor the media activities of former diplomats with
respect to the release of information that could be a threat to national security
or public order. However, the complete banning of diplomats from publishing any
material goes beyond this aim.


The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee in its report
Mandarins Unpeeled: Memoirs and Commentary by Former Ministers and Civil Servants,
which was published on 5 August, has called these new restrictions “excessively
wide-ranging and oppressive.” The committee concludes in its report:


“We do not accept that the government of the day is best placed to judge
whether it is in the public interest for particular information to be
published. This does not seem consistent with the principle of freedom of
information.”


“The approach taken to judging public interest in publication of memoirs
should be consistent with the approach taken to judging public interest in
disclosure of information under the Freedom of Information Act. By passing
that Act, the Government has accepted the principle that it cannot be the
Government which is the ultimate arbiter of whether it is in the public
interest for a particular piece of information to be published. It is
indefensible to deny that principle in the specific circumstances of
political memoirs.”



ARTICLE 19 supports the committee’s conclusions and calls on the UK authorities to
abandon the new rules and demonstrate their commitment to their international
obligations regarding the right to freedom of expression and the right of
information.

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