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UK's Data Protection Bill must ensure it protects press freedom

A web printer inspects pages of
A web printer inspects pages of "The Big Issue" publication as it rolls off the printing press in Wolverhampton, England, 14 October 2016

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 15 March 2018.

Press freedom groups have urged the parliamentary committee considering a proposed new UK data protection law to drop amendments that would force news publishers to sign up to a state-backed regulator or face potentially crippling costs.

The Data Protection Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons on 5 March and now passes to the committee stage where it will be scrutinised by a cross party committee of MPs.

“The amendments proposed by the Lords reintroduce measures that the government has just said it plans to axe from legislation", said Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship.

On 1 March 2018 the UK government said it would not enforce Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. Had this section been enforced it would have meant that any organisation that refuses to sign up to a state-backed regulator could have faced crippling court costs in any dispute, whether they won or lost a case.

"We remain concerned about the prospect of this worrying cost-shifting provision under any guise. These measures threaten press freedom, and have no place in the Data Protection Bill", said Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders.

Clauses 168 and 169 of the Data Protection Bill effectively reintroduce the now defunct section 40 via another route because they would force all those news organisations who choose not to join a state backed regulator to pay the costs of data protection actions, even if the claim is unjustified.

Faced with the threat of crippling costs even if the courts found in their favour, news outlets might shy away from important public interest investigations.

Speaking during a Lords debate on the amendments earlier this year, crossbench peer Lord Pannick said the measures would have a "chilling effect" on the industry.

Antonia Byatt, Director of English PEN said: "We must make certain that in ensuring we respect an individual's right to privacy we do not trample all over our free expression rights".

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