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Government imposes restrictions on right of former diplomats to freedom of speech

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - The following is an ARTICLE 19 press release:

UNITED KINGDOM: Government to Restrict Freedom of Expression of Former Diplomats and the Right to Information

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.

The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee report is available at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmpubadm/664/664.pdf

ARTICLE 19 is an independent human rights organisation that works globally to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression. It takes its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees free speech.

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