Reporters Without Borders today condemned a British judge’s order banning the press from mentioning a leaked memo about a meeting between Tony Blair and George W. Bush in their coverage of the trial of two persons accused of violating the Official Secrets Act by leaking the memo, which reportedly referred to the possibility of bombing the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera.
Judge Richard Aikens imposed the gagging order on 10 May after he sentenced government communications officer David Keogh to six months in prison for passing a copy of the memo to Leo O’Connor, a parliamentarian’s researcher, whom he sentenced to three months in prison.
“The judge’s order constitutes inappropriate judicial meddling in the news media and highlights the degree to which this case revives the question of the incompatibility of Britain’s Official Secrets Act with a free press”, Reporters Without Borders added.
Created to protect government secrets and national security, the Official Secrets Act has been amended several times since it took effect, most recently in 1989. Steps are under way to modify it again. Campaigners condemned the jailings and say the government has actually expressed an intent to tighten the Official Secrets Act to remove the whistleblower’s common-law defence of "duress of circumstance" (i.e. that the seriousness of the information being disclosed justified the leak). This defence was used successfully in 2004 by Katherine Gunn, a former translator at the British government’s GCHQ signals listening post, who leaked memos revealing that the US had asked British intelligence for help to bug UN officials in the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003.
Several British media, including The Guardian, the BBC and The Times, are planning to appeal against what Anthony Hudson, a lawyer who is representing them, called a “serious intrusion” by the judge in the fundamental right to free expression.
The case dates back to April 2004, when Keogh allegedly photocopied the memo, which bore the Downing Street letterhead and the warning “Secret-Personal” and passed it to O’Connor, who placed in a file which he gave to his employer, Labour Party parliamentarian Anthony Clark. Clark told Downing Street about the leak, but the memo’s alleged contents nonetheless ended up being revealed by the Daily Mirror on 22 November 2005.
The memo is reportedly about a meeting between British Prime Minister Blair and US President Bush in Washington on 16 April 2004 in which Bush raised the possibility of bombing Al-Jazeera and Blair argued against it. The White House has described this account of the meeting as “preposterous” and “unconceivable. A Blair spokesman said it did not refer to “the bombing of the TV station Al-Jazeera in Qatar.”