UK Looks To Lead Global Action To Protect Journalists

The UK should take the lead as international consensus grows around the need for decisive action to protect journalists who face attacks and intimidation just for doing their jobs, a Foreign Office Minister has said.

In a debate on the international protection of journalists organised by former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale yesterday, Mark Field said the Foreign Office would place “as many of the resources as we can” behind a campaign to protect journalists over the coming year.  

During the debate, MPs from five parties spoke about the importance of journalism and the need to take action after one of the worst years on record for violence and intimidation against journalists.

Mr Whittingdale called on the Government to support the appointment of a UN special representative for the safety of journalists. Speaking about the Foreign Office’s plans for an international conference promoting media freedom, Mr Whittingdale said he intended to organise a parallel conference in his capacity as newly elected chair of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Mr Whittingdale, Conservative, said: “Journalists play a vital role in a free society. Their role in exposing corruption, highlighting injustice and holding Governments to account helps to make a democracy function, but it does not always make them popular. Sadly, in authoritarian regimes, that often leads to imprisonment, being taken hostage, intimidation and sometimes even death.”

Responding on behalf of the Government, Mr Field said the climate was “worsening fast” and action was needed to protect journalism which is “an essential part of a vibrant and healthy democracy” and a “huge benefit to society as a whole.”

He added: “A free press is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, because it holds the powerful to account, helps to expose corruption and lack of integrity, and is one of the best antidotes to disinformation.

“That is why we must take action to stop the intimidation, harassment and persecution of journalists across the world, and is why this year we will place as many of the resources as we can from the Foreign and ​Commonwealth Office – not only financial, but in time terms, too—behind a campaign to reverse the worrying trends outlined in this debate.”

During the debate, MPs from across the political spectrum highlighted the importance of journalism and the need for action to protect it after one of the worst years on record in 2018 in which 80 journalists were killed, 348 were languishing in prison and 60 were being held hostage.

John Grogan, Labour, said: “The decisions we make in this House matter. In our nation we are lucky to live among only 13 per cent of humanity who enjoy freedom of the press. The vast bulk of the world does not. When we make decisions, as we did last year about whether there should be punitive damages on news organisations that did not sign up to a state-approved regulator, those decisions matter, because dictators around the world look at what we are doing.

“I am proud that our party changed its policy and our deputy leader said that never again would we advocate that. When did ‘mainstream media’ become a term of abuse? When did ‘balanced news’ become a term of abuse? That has entered our politics as well, and what we do here is important for what happens in the rest of the world.”

Christine Jardine, Lib Dem, said: “Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that even in this country we have to be very careful what we say about our attitudes to journalists, as to politicians and everyone else.

“As a former journalist, I am well aware that one of the prerequisites for the job is the willingness to put yourself at risk in order to uncover public injustice in this country and abroad. Perhaps we need to be very wary in this country, as elsewhere in Europe, about the intemperate language we use.”

Hannah Bardell, SNP, said: “Journalists are our eyes and ears on the international stage. They go where we cannot. They see what we cannot see. They hear what we cannot hear. That is particularly important for politicians.

“There is often a relationship of conflict between journalists and politicians, but we must hold them in the highest regard—indeed, cherish them—because their accounts help to direct our decisions about aid and about troops and intervention. Without them, we are blind to the great atrocities that, as we have heard, many Governments and regimes are visiting upon their own people and other nations.”

Jim Shannon, DUP, said: “It is clear that freedom in any nation should include freedom of the press. That freedom must be protected, and protection is an active thing. It is not tutting when ​something goes wrong, but actively declaring, and using diplomatic pressure to assert, that freedom of the press is essential. That is something that I and the House believe in. Hopefully this debate will make things better for journalists across the world.”

Priti Patel, Conservative, said:  “As we approach World Press Freedom Day in May this year, there is a fantastic opportunity, notwithstanding UN conventions and Geneva protocols, for the United Kingdom to lead the world—as we already do when it comes to aid, foreign policy and our humanitarian approach—to strengthen our profile internationally and to give voice to those who need support to safeguard international freedoms, as well as political and press freedoms. The UK Government could do that quite robustly.”