Whistleblowers fear prosecution under new European Trade Secrets law

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Image caption French MEP Constance Le Grip is in charge of the bill's progress

The European Parliament is debating a bill on Thursday critics say threatens to turn whistleblowers into criminals.

The aim of the Trade Secrets Protection Act is to protect European companies from corporate spying by their rivals in other parts of the world.

But critics say journalists and whistleblowers could be criminalised if they publish information that companies deem to be secret.

More than half a million people have signed a petition against the bill.

Industrial espionage is a major worry in the corporate world, and other countries have already put laws in place to protect their companies.

Offenders in the US can be jailed for up to fifteen years, and a quarter of prosecutions involved people connected with China.

According to the European Commission, one in five companies in Europe suffered an attempt to steal trade secrets in the last 10 years.


But opponents of the plans in Europe say the bill is not specific enough about the type of information it is trying to protect.

They fear that the legislation will make it possible for corporations to define any information they do not want released as a trade secret, and then prosecute journalists or whistleblowers who release it to the public.

Campaigner Martin Pigeon, from Corporate Europe Observatory in Brussels says the Trade Secrets Protection Act would have potentially criminalised the release of the Panama Papers: "The law firm involved in the Panama Papers leak, Mossack Fonseca, has already filed a complaint and has sent a number of threatening emails to all news outlets who have published information based on their documents, arguing that using their documents was a crime because it was based on a theft.

"What the Trade Secrets Protection Directive would do would simply give companies like Mossack Fonseca additional means of redress, of legal proceedings, against news organisation and people who publish this kind of information."


The bill's supporters say there is nothing to worry about because it contains a defence for those who release information exposing criminal wrongdoing or who are acting in the public interest.

But not everything exposed by the Panama papers was illegal - much of it was merely embarrassing to the people who were named.

French MEP Constance Le Grip is in charge of the bill's progress through the European Parliament as the official rapporteur.

She says opponents are misinterpreting the purpose of the bill, but refused to say that it was impossible journalists could ever be prosecuted under the terms of the directive: "We have made clear that this directive shall not affect the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and information set out in the European Charter for Fundamental rights.

"We have also set out very precisely and clearly set out the exemptions for both journalists and whistleblowers. The Panama Papers have nothing to do with this kind of matter".

Assuming the bill is approved by the European Parliament, its will still need to be passed into law by national parliaments across the 28 nations of the EU.

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