Peers Call For Action On Global Press Freedom Threat

Peers have called for the Government to take action on the global threat to press freedom which is reaching “unprecedented levels” as repressive regimes increasingly use the coronavirus pandemic to chill free speech and bully journalists.

In a debate this week following an oral question by Lord Black of Brentwood, chairman of the NMA’s Legal, Policy and Regulatory Affairs Committee, asking the Government what action they are taking to promote press freedom and the safety of journalists globally, peers pointed to examples of state repression of journalists across the globe in countries such as Mexico, Iran and Egypt.

Lord Black, deputy chairman of Telegraph Media Group, said: “Across the world – from Mexico to Hungary to Beijing – attacks on journalists and publishers are reaching unprecedented levels. In many cases these are inspired by the disgraceful actions of the White House, which have led to attacks on journalists in the US.

“Some 64 other countries, according to Reporters Without Borders, are using Covid-19 to chill free speech and bully journalists, often using criminal sanctions.

“Does my noble friend agree that it is now urgent that there is co-ordinated international action to ensure that journalists have proper legal protection, including an end to impunity, and for the Media Freedom Coalition, which the UK Government helped to establish and now seems to be missing in action, to act forcefully and without delay, including with the publication of a national action plan?”

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister, said the Media Freedom Coalition had been “quite active” and the UK Government continued to work very closely with Canada on the initiative. He confiemd that the UK would partivcpioate in the next Media Freedom Conference with “high-level representation.”

During the debate, Baroness Stroud, Conservative, said that 150 journalists in Mexico have been murdered and many more have simply disappeared, assumed dead, and called on the Government to pressure countries like Mexico to increase protection for journalists.

Baroness Goudie, Labour, said: “My Lords, we are used to autocracies suppressing freedom of expression, and we expect democracies to support freedom of expression. It is a matter of great sadness when a country with a great democratic tradition and a great history of freedom of the press such as the United States goes the way of autocracies and physically attacks journalists who are doing their job.”

Her comments were echoed by Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, Lib Dem, who said that the UK embassy in Washington had raised concerns about the conduct of US police officers.  “Is there not a greater concern: the conduct of a US President who describes journalists as enemies of the people?” she added.

Asked by Baroness Northover, Lib Dem, when did the Government last raised the harassment of BBC Persian staff with Iran or on the international stage, the Minister said that Iran continued to be a “country of concern.”

Lord Howell of Guildford, Conservative, said the Minister, “will be well aware that some of the most dreadful attacks on journalists, and indeed murders, have occurred in Commonwealth countries.

“As we are now, I presume, still in the chair of the Commonwealth, will my noble friend undertake with his colleagues to put maximum pressure on Commonwealth organisations and the Commonwealth Secretariat to encourage and support the work of the Commonwealth Journalists Association?”