RSF Calls For Media To Come Together To Fight Threats To Journalism

Solidarity from the media community is needed more than ever before to prevent the space left for independent journalism from shrinking beyond repair, director of international campaigns for Reporters Without Borders Rebecca Vincent has said in an op ed for Journalism Matters. 

She said: “Independent journalism has come under unprecedented attack around the world in recent years, with a number of converging crises eroding the global climate for press freedom. Internationally, more than 450 journalists are currently imprisoned, and alarmingly, more than 1,000 journalists have been killed in connection with their work over the past decade – almost all with impunity. Regressive legislation and anti-media narratives are taking hold in many parts of the world. In many ways, it is more difficult now to be a journalist than ever before.

“For its part, the UK’s own press freedom record is not where it should be, with a current ranking of 33rd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Despite the government’s commitment to championing media freedom globally, a number of worrying trends at home have negatively impacted the UK’s media landscape — particularly when it comes to secrecy.
Publishing stories based on leaked information is a standard journalistic practice, and is part and parcel of the work of media organisations around the world. However, recent years have seen increasing moves by governments to make every step of this process much more difficult – for sources, journalists and publishers alike.

“One glaring example of this is the case of Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange, whose extradition appeal was heard at the High Court just last week, on 27 and 28 October. Assange remains in detention at high-security Belmarsh Prison while the US government continues to fight for his extradition to face criminal proceedings that could land him in prison for the rest of his life, simply for publishing information in the public interest. If the US is successful, Assange would be the first publisher convicted under the Espionage Act, setting a dangerous precedent that would have a severe chilling effect on national security reporting around the world.

“Meanwhile the Home Office has put forward an alarming proposal to reform the Official Secrets Acts, reform which could see journalistic activity classified as “espionage” – even the act of simply receiving leaked information – with a possible prison sentence of up to 14 years. The Home Office has also concluded that a public interest defence is not necessary in a reformed law, despite widespread calls for this measure from free expression groups like RSF, and even the Law Commission following its public consultation on the matter.

“This comes against a backdrop of other worrying moves by the government to restrict access to information, with even routine information requests denied or dragged on interminably, and media outlets or specific journalists being blacklisted by governmental bodies. A new report by openDemocracy found that 2020 was the worst year on record for Freedom of Information Act transparency, with government departments employing practices of stonewalling and exploiting loopholes to delay access to information, and a secretive ‘clearing house’ in the Cabinet Office filtering information requests. ‘Secrecy is now a signature of Boris Johnson’s rule,’ the report concludes.

“All of this serves not only to tarnish the UK’s press freedom record and erode the domestic media climate, but also to contribute to the global deterioration that is making it harder – and riskier – for journalists everywhere to do their jobs. The ultimate impact of this growing default to secrecy is on the public itself, as such violations result in less reporting on stories that the public has a right to know, and less access to information the public needs to hold governments to account.

“Here in the UK, we still have the chance to reverse these worrying trends before further damage is done and more journalists are put at risk. In the week of the Journalism Matters campaign and beyond, solidarity from the media community itself is needed more than ever before to prevent the space left for independent journalism from shrinking beyond repair, and the culture of governmental secrecy from becoming even more pervasive.”