New Report Warns UK Press Freedom At Risk

Press freedom in the UK is at serious risk as journalists face physical attacks and intimidation amid a worsening climate for media freedom across Europe, a new report by press freedom bodies has found. 

The ‘Wanted! Real action for media freedom in Europe’ report, which has been written for the Council of Europe’s platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, has found that in Europe “extraordinary damage was inflicted on the practice of free and independent journalism” in 2020.

The UK, along with Russia and Italy, hold the “highest numbers of attacks on the physical integrity of journalists”, with many assaults on journalists during protests in the UK, several in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In some European countries, including the UK, the report cites that a “record number of alerts in 2020 concerned physical attacks, as well as harassment and intimidation”, flagging incidents during rallies and demonstrations as a particular cause for concern.

In a statement issued ahead of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić urged European governments to show stronger political will to protect journalists and independent journalism in order to put a stop to the deterioration of media freedom in the continent.

She said: “Media freedom is an essential pillar of our democracies which is too often taken for granted. Respect for freedom of the media is in decline in many countries. In the last years we have witnessed an increase in the number of cases of violence and intimidation against journalists.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a strong rise in reports of violence against journalists as well as censorship and reprisals for questioning governments policies. At the same time, quality media face serious economic challenges and many journalists have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. These worrying trends are highlighted in my annual report to be published in the next days.

“It is time to recall that states have an obligation to ensure that journalists can carry out their work free from violence and intimidation and fulfil their role as public “watchdog”, which includes holding public authorities accountable for their decisions and action.”

The UK is also listed amongst the countries with reported concerns over attacks carried out from public officials, which “point to a general decline in respect for media workers and their reporting activities across Europe.”

The report also cites Amy Fenton, formerly chief reporter for The Mail in Barrow-in-Furness, who received “100 death threats and threats of violence” after a story about a young woman from the town was charged with lying about being abused. Amy and her daughter were later placed under police protection.

The report does commend the UK Government’s national action plan designed to protect journalists from violent abuse and harassment, noting beneficial measures such as “every police force is to deal with a designed journalist safety liaison officer” and a “senior police officer will take responsibility for crime against journalists at a national level”.

However it still calls on the British and Irish Governments to investigate the murder of Northern Irish journalist Martin O’Hagan, which should be carried out by “a panel of independent international experts” after the “subsequent failed police investigation”.

The Council of Europe has also been urged “to take urgent action against abusive legal actions”, in particular strategic lawsuits against public participation. The report urges “drafting and adopting as soon as possible a self-standing recommendation on the protection of the right to freedom of expression and unfettered public participation from the threat of abusive and vexatious legal proceedings.”

The UK has since been called on to “take necessary actions and measures to end the disruptive and harmful practice by which legal firms based in the UK send numerous vexatious threats of legal action directed at journalists and media organisations in various countries”.

The report has identified the UK as “the foremost country of origin of such vexatious actions” which represent “a serious impediment to the watchdog function of the media.” Find the full report here.