WHILE freedom of speech has been weaponised to attack "woke" proponents of cancel culture, many of its most enthusiastic champions are also supporters of the contentious National Security Bill (NSB), which reaches its third Commons reading this week.

The NSB is, in the minds of many, a grave threat to liberty, with particular concern about its impact on media freedom and the move to "criminalise" public interest journalism and whistleblowing. Along with my colleagues David McMenemy and Elaine Robinson, I have been exploring what the NSB means for journalists in the UK, including the possibility they and their sources could be treated the same as suspected spies.

While the UK and civil society face real threats, I am not convinced the bill will address them in ways which also preserve and protect media freedoms and rights in the UK.

Our research, supported by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, found that the threat of cyber attacks from a variety of actors, some politically motivated, some purely criminal, is a growing issue for media organisations, as can be seen with the hack and leak attack against Paul Mason earlier this year and the denial of service attacks against pro-independence online magazine Bella Caledonia.

Much more could be done to train the profession in cyber security and surveillance issues focused on the domain of journalism, as well as to provide adequate resources for training and for acquiring devices and software to protect journalists against surveillance and cyber attacks. These are reasonable measures that would do more to protect democracy than the broad-brush approach of the NSB.

The bill will expand the type of information falling under the Official Secrets Act from clearly defined risks to national security to a vaguer category of information "prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom". Given that existing laws in this area have already been used against journalists, members of the fourth estate are understandably concerned about media freedom and the protection of sources.

The journalists we spoke to pointed to pre-existing limitations in the UK, especially defamation, so these further concerns will worsen what is already a sub-optimal protection for media freedom by western standards. They are concerned about the threats they face from the UK and foreign governments, private companies, organised crime and even harassment from the general public. Throw into the mix the increasing unsustainability of smaller, local and investigative outlets and large sections of the media are fighting for survival on multiple fronts.

The NSB probably won't greatly impact on the average person in the street but it may affect what they see/don't see in terms of hard-hitting investigations trying to keep the UK state transparent and accountable.

Journalists and newspapers are generally risk-averse when it comes to defamation given the costs of defending a case and the potential costs involved in losing. Few journalists have the funds and strength to defend themselves against a defamation claim. SLAPPs – strategic lawsuits against public participation – have a chilling effect on journalists, making them less likely to pursue stories about people or organisations they think might sue them, even if they have the truth on their side.

The UK Government’s professed commitment to free speech seems dependent on what speech and whose speech. If it truly cared about free speech, it could strengthen the protection of journalists and their sources in the Investigatory Powers Act. It could properly reform defamation laws (as could the Scottish Government) which journalists consistently point to as impeding their work in the public interest. It could stop stoking the culture wars, with our interviewees pointing to divisive issues such as race and gender leading to them being harassed online and offline.

The media is far from perfect but, as the scandals of the past few years have shown, we need it more than ever. The National Security Bill risks deepening what is already an existential crisis.

• Professor Angela Daly is with the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Dundee