Lords Caution On Rising Attacks On Journalists And Praise UK’s Role In Promoting Media Freedom

Members of the House of Lords highlighted the rise of attacks on journalists internationally and discussed the UK’s role promoting media freedom in a short debate on the effectiveness of national and international measures to curb attacks on journalists and the media on Tuesday.

Foreign Office Minister Lord Ahmad said: “We are committed to improving our [press freedom] ranking in the index. For example, we are committed to repealing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act at the earliest opportunity. We are also consulting with civil society on the online harms White Paper. 

He added: “That is why, as noble Lords acknowledged, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, together with his Canadian counterpart, launched the global campaign to defend media freedom to protect journalists doing their jobs, to raise the costs to those who would silence them, and to promote the benefits of a free media.

“Noble Lords will recognise that media freedom is one of the key human rights priorities for Her Majesty’s Government. I am pleased that we have been able to invite all Foreign Ministers, with the exception of those of one or two countries. Whether they will come or not, I do not know, but it is an open conference where we hope to have an open and candid discussion of this important human rights priority, including the issue of women journalists.

“It is in all our interests that all journalists are free to go about their work without fearing for their safety, because what is at stake is not only their lives but the freedoms and protections that they provide. There should be no impunity for those who attack journalists.”

Baroness Smith outlined the domestic relevance UK press freedom has. She said: ”Press freedom and freedom of the media affects all of us. It is not just an international issue; it comes closer to home… I remembered that Laura Kuenssberg, a BBC journalist here, at one point two years ago had a protection officer going to a party conference. In the 21st century, there is surely something wrong when a journalist in this country feels that they need protection.

 “Furthermore, it is important for us to remember to think about the issues of imprisoning journalists and curtailing freedom of speech. Governments with whom we have relationships are doing these things, be it Turkey or Saudi Arabia. We should not simply turn a blind eye to these issues. The most egregious attacks on freedom are only the most difficult cases.

“It is important not simply to ensure that journalists do not fear for their lives and being put in prison; they should also feel assured that they can speak the truth and speak truth to power. That is the key role of any journalist. It is essential that we have freedom of the press in all parts of the world.” 

Referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights right “to receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” Lord Alton cautioned that social media made journalists more of a target. 

He said: “These last three words “regardless of frontiers” remind us that this is a transnational obligation which all states are duty-bound to uphold. This obligation is given even sharper definition in the internet age, as journalists face ever more danger—intimidation, imprisonment, violent attacks and even murder—in reprisal for their work. Only yesterday, in the Times there was a report on the death of an Afghan journalist, Mena Mangal, who was shot dead in Kabul. Fifteen other reporters and media workers were killed in Afghanistan last year.”

Lord Collins highlighted the changing nature of the news ecosystem and how it can impact on media freedom. He said: “We talk about press freedom, but of course journalists are not now working simply for the press; they increasingly use social media to spread information. It is important that repressive Governments are not able to cut off access to social media to quell what they see as unhelpful reporting.

“What reassurance can the Minister give those concerned about the impact on press freedom of the Government’s White Paper proposals to tackle online harm? What has been properly reflected in this debate is that whatever we say for other countries, we must do ourselves. It is important that we in this country protect all aspects of press freedom.”

Lord Alton summarised:“In 2018, according to the Foreign Office, 99 journalists were killed, 348 detained and 60 taken hostage by non-state groups. Although there are conflicting figures, all agree that 2018 was the deadliest year ever for journalists.

 “Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, is to be commended for marking World Press Freedom Day, launching a global campaign to protect journalists doing their job, and promoting the benefits of a free media and especially for hosting in July the world’s first ministerial summit on media freedom.”