Print Edition - 2019-01-23  |  The Guardian

It’s heartwarming to hear MPs speaking up for press freedom

  • Recent initiatives are a step forward in helping editors and reporters under attack
- Roy Greenslade

Jan 23, 2019-

In too many countries, it is open season on journalists. Ruling politicians, acting like the monarchs of regimes past, openly denigrate the men and women who seek to hold them to account and thereby encourage their citizens to follow suit. The most obvious example is US president Donald Trump and his declaration that journalists are enemies of the people purveying “fake news”.

Presidents and prime ministers elsewhere have taken his lead, from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan—jailer at the last count of 68 journalists—to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who deals with critical media outlets by buying them up and closing them down, and on to the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, who thought it amusing to hold up a mock assault rifle labelled “for journalists”.

Nor should we overlook that other presidential champion of a free press, Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Since he came to power in 2000, at least 21 journalists have been killed in his country.

The hostility generated against journalism by these political leaders, in countries regarded as democratic, is of increasing concern. It surely inspires cavalier behaviour towards journalists in tyrannies.

Consider the result. According to records collated by the press freedom organisation, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) of whose board I am a member, 80 journalists were killed while doing their job during 2018, of whom 49 were deliberately targeted, and 348 were held in prison while a further 60 were taken hostage. When we in Britain hear of such attacks in foreign parts we rightly wring our hands. But what, beyond the routine statements of condemnation, is to be done? That was the positive theme of a Westminster Hall debate almost two weeks ago which received, due to the news-eating monster that is Brexit, almost no media coverage.

I am therefore delighted to rectify the oversight because it reflects well on our politicians who, too often, tend to disparage journalists in public while courting them in private.

It was genuinely heartening to hear so many MPs speaking up for journalists, especially John Whittingdale, the Tory MP who once chaired the culture select committee and who has suffered his share of hostile newspaper headlines down the years. After praising the “vital role” played by journalists in “highlighting injustice and holding governments to account”, he said: “I have had occasion to be deeply unhappy about some of the things that journalists have done, but I recognise that freedom of the press is a vital component of a free society.”

Along with several other speakers who were advocating greater international protection for journalists, he mentioned some of the 80 murder victims in the past year such as Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in October inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul; investigative reporter Jan Kuciak, shot dead with his fiancée in Slovakia in February; and Victoria Marinova, a Bulgarian TV presenter and journalist who was raped and beaten to death in October.

Murder is, of course, the most extreme form of repression. It is exacerbated by impunity because so many killings are never even investigated. But it is not the only way rulers impose censorship.

The use of imprisonment, particularly in Turkey, China, Egypt and Iran, is increasingly common. Myanmar has joined them. Last week, two Reuters reporters, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, lost their appeal against their seven-year jail sentence for breaching Myanmar’s official secrets act. They were convicted last September on the grounds of possessing classified documents while investigating the massacre of Rohingya Muslims.

In too many countries, editors and reporters face persistent threats and intimidation. Few cases are more obvious than the relentless campaign against the BBC’s Persian service. Conservative MP Huw Merriman, who chairs the all-party parliamentary BBC group, pointed out that the families of London-based staff suffer from harassment inside Iran.

Details were revealed by another Conservative MP, Fiona Bruce. They include arbitrary arrests and interrogation, confiscation of passports, travel bans, regular surveillance and the spreading of fake and defamatory news stories designed to undermine the reputation of both staff and their relatives.

The debate comes at a time when the Foreign Office—with clear, and welcome, enthusiasm from the current foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt—has begun to show positive signs of taking steps towards making the international safety of journalists a key policy issue.

In a recent article, Hunt wrote of his intention to host an international conference in London on media freedom in order “to mobilise a consensus behind the protection of journalists”. Further evidence that the foreign office is taking the matter seriously came earlier this month when its deputy director, Alastair King-Smith, attended a brainstorming discussion, hosted at the BBC and organised by RWB, aimed at making international media freedom “a top priority after Brexit”.

It is easy to be cynical about this kind of initiative, which follows a somewhat ungenerous £1m press freedom fund announced in November 2017 by Hunt’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, which I welcomed at the time as a step in the right direction. I regard the latest moves as the sign of a giant step forward.

During the Westminster Hall debate, there were calls for the appointment of a UN special representative on the safety of journalists and, courtesy of Labour MP Fabian Hamilton, backing for what would be a new UN convention on the protection of journalists.

Other MPs referred to their support for the work carried out on behalf of journalists by the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Straws in the wind, perhaps, but parliamentary support for journalists and for the promotion of press freedom is surely welcome all the same.

Rebecca Vincent, the director of RWB’s UK bureau, spoke of being “encouraged” by what she called a “very well-informed and robust debate”.

She said: “It couldn’t be more timely following the deadliest year on record for media and with press freedom under serious attack around the world. We are looking forward to increasing collaboration with MPs from all parties and plan to launch an all-party parliamentary group on press freedom ahead of this year’s World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.”

Published: 23-01-2019 09:05

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