Safety of Journalists

– in the House of Commons at 4:02 pm on 10 June 2021.

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Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 4:02, 10 June 2021

Order. Before I call the Minister for Media and Data, may I say that those contributing from the Back Benches should be looking at speaking for no longer than three minutes, as this is a relatively short but very important debate?

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Minister of State 4:04, 10 June 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the safety of journalists.

I very much welcome this opportunity to debate what is, as you have rightly said, Mr Deputy Speaker, an extremely important subject. It is the second such debate we have had in the space of two weeks, as we recently debated World Press Freedom Day. I congratulate my hon. Friend Damian Collins who has been an assiduous campaigner on this topic and who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom.

The safety of journalists is of critical importance, as journalists play a vital role in ensuring that democracy functions properly and in contributing towards a free society. The role that journalists play in exposing corruption, holding power to account and informing the electorate of the truth is absolutely central to a democratic, free society. Investigative journalism plays a critical role and we will all remember examples, such as the exposure of the thalidomide scandal, the corruption that riddled FIFA, the Panama papers and even MPs’ expenses.

Such journalism shone a powerful light into areas that needed to be exposed. That is particularly important at the moment. The need for the provision of trusted and reliable information is absolutely critical, and has been over the course of the last year, at a time when fake news has been so prevalent and it has been all the more important for people to be able to turn to trusted journalism for reliable reports of the truth.

For that reason we regarded it as vital to support the media during the pandemic. The media came under significant economic pressure and we were able to provide support to local newspapers and radio, and recognised the important role that journalists play by affording them key worker status.

While the role of journalists has never been more important, it is the sad truth that it is also increasingly dangerous. I pay tribute to the organisations that regularly highlight the harassment and intimidation of journalists that takes place in far too many countries.

Reporters sans frontières, which is responsible for the world press freedom index, has recorded that 50 journalists were killed in the course of their duties last year. The deadliest countries in the world are Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

Justice for Journalists monitors the treatment of the press in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It lists 84 journalists currently held in detention or imprisoned. The most recent and most shocking example of a journalist being illegally detained is that of Raman Pratasevich, whose flight was forced to land in Belarus and who has since been held, with significant concern about his future wellbeing.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has identified 1,404 journalists who have died since they started keeping records in 1992. I pay tribute to the courage of those journalists around the world who are operating in extremely dangerous environments, particularly a number of British journalists who are on the frontline of conflict or reporting in authoritarian regimes. As we did two weeks ago, we remember Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times who was killed alongside her French colleague as a result of being deliberately targeted because of the job they were carrying out as journalists.

The UK has taken a lead in campaigning for the safety of journalists. We established the global conference on media freedom in July 2019 and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt who led that initiative. We continue to co-chair the Media Freedom Coalition, which now comprises 47 member countries.

We have used our presidency of the G7, which is coming to its conclusion over the course of this weekend, to continue to highlight the importance of the protection of journalists. Indeed, we have included that in the communiqué that was issued by the Foreign Ministers, which has a number of paragraphs setting out exactly why it is so important that journalists should be afforded protection.

We established the global media defence fund, to which the Government are contributing £3 million over five years, and I am going to be speaking tomorrow at the Council of Europe in support of the resolutions being passed there highlighting the protection of journalists.

However, we are also conscious that if we are to be able to campaign on this issue, we need to set an example, too. The UK currently ranks 33rd out of 180 in the press freedom index, which represents a small improvement but it is nothing like enough. For that reason, the Government established, a year ago, the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, which I co-chair along with the Minister for safeguarding, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins. That committee brings together representatives of the police, from the National Police Chiefs Council, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Police Scotland; the prosecuting authorities—the Crown Prosecution Service and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland; the Society of Editors; the National Union of Journalists, and some of those campaigning organisations such as Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders. As a result of the committee’s establishment, we published in March the national action plan for the safety of journalists, whose aim is to increase our understanding of the scale of the problem and enhance the criminal justice system response, so that in future there will be new training for police officers and a police officer in every force dedicated to investigating complaints relating to the safety of journalists. It will give greater resources and advice to journalists, agreed by their employers, and there will be a commitment from the online platform to do more. Finally, greater efforts will be made to improve the public recognition of the value of journalists. Last week, we published our call for evidence, to try to establish hard facts on the scale of the problem. It closes on 14 July and I hope very much that anyone who has experience will make a submission to it, but we have already received 200 responses which make it clear that online threats and harassment are indeed widespread and that this is a significant problem, which we need to do more to address. The committee will continue to meet to review the plan, but we are determined to ensure that the UK is as safe an environment as possible for journalists to carry out their job. We will also continue to campaign to raise the importance of this issue in every country around the world.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:12, 10 June 2021

Freedom of the press is at the centre of a free society, so I would like to start by talking about West Papua, whose people have been fighting for self-determination from Indonesia for 50 years. In the past month, hundreds of Indonesian soldiers have been deployed to the region and thousands of people have been displaced. In the Papuan struggle for liberation, journalists have been one of Indonesia’s key targets, with restrictions in place on foreign journalists and obstacles to receiving permission to report in the country. Once again, the prominent West Papuan journalist Victor Mambor was targeted in an attack after his reporting of the shooting of two Indonesian teachers in April. Similarly concerning is the fact that the capital of Papua province and surrounding areas have been subject to a month-long internet blackout, complicating the media’s efforts to report on the escalating conflict. The curtailment of journalistic freedom in West Papua is not completely new. In 2018, the Indonesian military deported BBC journalists Rebecca Henschke, and her co-reporters Dwiki and Affan; the crew were deported from West Papua after they hurt soldiers’ feelings when covering the ongoing health crisis in the Asmat region, which involved malnutrition and a lack of measles vaccinations causing a measles outbreak that killed dozens, perhaps hundreds—a lack of reporting means we will never know. According to the Alliance of Independent Journalists in Indonesia, there were 76 cases of journalists having to obtain prior permission to report in Papua, with 56 of these requests being refused.

The unacceptable targeting of media officers in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes earlier this month was another reminder of the importance of upholding press freedom. The freedom to inform is a crucial indicator of democracy and efforts to curtail it often come with human cost. Anna Politkovskaya was a reporter for the independent Novaya Gazeta in Russia and a critic of President Putin. Like many others, I was shocked and horrified when she was shot to death in the lobby of a Moscow apartment in 2006. In the trial relating to her death, the judge was clear that she was killed for her work

“exposing human rights violations, embezzlement and abuse of power”.

The sad reality is that I would no longer be surprised at such a death; it is estimated that 21 journalists have been killed since Putin came to power, and in the great majority of cases no one has been convicted and sentenced for the murders. That is not to say, of course, that the murder of journalists is a uniquely Russian issue. Many other countries have higher death rates, but nearly 15 years after Politkovskaya’s death the space for independent journalism in Russia has become smaller and smaller, while state-backed media have grown stronger and stronger. Many independent publishers have been forced to cease their publications, while Russian state-backed channels such as RT seem immune from accountability. The lack of accountability may or may not be a result of the clear message from the Russian authorities. Action taken against RT in the UK resulted in measures being taken against the BBC in Russia, while the Russian media are free to criticise the BBC as they see fit.

Russia is not the only state on a mission to reduce or remove BBC influence. Last month, I chaired a joint British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union and BBC event on the media in China, and heard how the BBC’s reporting of coronavirus and the persecution of the Uyghurs meant that the Chinese authorities cracked down, removing the BBC World News TV channel outright and banning the BBC World Service in Hong Kong.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman and I share concerns about the escalating persecution of ethnic and religious minorities across the world. Does he agree that journalists have a role to play in raising awareness of issues in China, Russia or wherever it may be, because that is how the rest of the word knows what is going on?

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The freedom of journalistic expression is paramount, including in terms of freedom of religion. The hon. Member makes vital points.

The BBC’s China correspondent has had to move to Taiwan because of safety fears. China’s lack of press freedom is well documented. It sits at 177 out of 180 in the 2021 world press freedom index. Only Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea fall below it. In 2020, a year in which a historically high total of 387 journalists and media workers were detained worldwide, China was the worst offender. In its record-breaking year, at least 274 journalists were locked up for their work. The UK Government must move further and faster in developing an international strategy to defend journalists, media freedom and internet access from authoritarian tendencies across the globe. I hope that that is being discussed at the G7 today.

Of course, the UK is not without fault. The UK ranked just 33rd out of the 180 countries in the 2021 world press freedom index. In February, Andy Aitchison was arrested at his home after photographing a fake blood protest outside the Napier barracks, where asylum seekers were being housed, and still are, even though there has been a High Court ruling against the Government. The police held Mr Aitchison for seven hours and seized his phone and memory card. Mr Aitchison was just doing his job, exercising his right to report freely on the conditions in which asylum seekers are held. He was wrongly arrested and his journalistic material was taken. Still no apology has been forthcoming.

The Government must do better. How can we talk about press freedom without talking about the clearing house: the Orwellian unit that obstructs the release of sensitive information requested by the public under the Freedom of Information Act 2000? In a written judgment, made public on Tuesday, Judge Hughes concluded:

“The profound lack of transparency about the operation…might appear…to extend to Ministers.”

I look forward to the Minister clearing that up for us. As well as blocking FOI requests, the unit is alleged to have profiled journalists. Such a profound lack of transparency at the very heart of Government paints a very concerning picture.

Strategic lawsuits against public participation are taken out with impunity both in the UK and elsewhere. SLAPPs are legal actions, the goal of which is not necessarily to win in court but, rather, to silence the target. Powerful interests wanting to shut down stories can do so by taking legal action that they know will cost the defendant huge sums of money in legal fees and potentially take years to resolve. SLAPPs can be taken out by individual businesses, state actors or any other individual or group with enough money to do so. They may target academic freedom, political expression or, more commonly than ever, the freedom of the press.

SLAPPs can kill an uncomfortable story. They can also have the bigger impact of silencing other critical voices, creating the same culture of fear and silence as through illegal means. The Conservatives talk a good game on freedom of expression, but let us not forget that they have been known to exclude newspapers that they do not agree with from official briefings. I hope that the Minister can give us some assurances on those points.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The former Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has four minutes.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe 4:18, 10 June 2021

This is an incredibly important debate. I am grateful to the Minister for leading it for the Government. He is quite right to say that we had a similar debate in Westminster Hall just before the recess, but it is an important enough subject to demand scrutiny again.

I was interested to note from press reports this morning that in Cornwall today the Prime Minister and the President of the United States will have their first meeting together and on the agenda is a reaffirmation of the principles behind the Atlantic charter, signed 80 years ago by Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt. That charter was based on what was known as the four freedoms: freedom from want, freedom of worship, freedom of speech and freedom from fear. This debate is about freedom from fear in part, because there are journalists around the world who face direct persecution or who have been murdered because of the investigations they have pursued, which have threatened the positions of powerful people in those countries. We are seeing authoritarian Governments around the world with greater boldness deliberately persecuting and targeting people who are critical of their regimes.

Yes, this debate is in part about freedom from fear, but it is also about freedom of speech, because the persecution of journalists is taking place. That intimidation, the deliberate closing down of an opposition voice, and the example that is designed to send to other people are about suppressing speech and silencing criticism, and we must be increasingly concerned about the boldness with which many authoritarian Governments around the world act.

As Alex Sobel rightly pointed out in his remarks, strategic lawsuits against journalists are something that is happening in this country today, including to journalists such as Catherine Belton, who has faced multiple lawsuits from Russian oligarchs because of a book she has written. Those lawsuits may ultimately fail, but they are principally designed to tie down a journalist in potentially expensive litigation for years and to dissuade others from seeking to criticise or investigate powerful people for the same reason: because they know their work will not be completed and they will be frustrated and exhausted in the courts for many years.

We see that again with increasing boldness in authoritarian countries around the world, and particularly in the Philippines, where the campaigning journalist Maria Ressa, chief executive of the Rappler news organisation, has faced repeated lawsuits from the Government of that country, led by the president. That includes cases where the law has retrospectively been changed and the Government seek to enforce it against the journalist for doing something that was not an offence at the time and, many would argue, is not an offence anyway. We are seeing that happen increasingly, too.

The suppression of speech in the digital age can also be conducted highly effectively through social media and online, with people creating hate mobs to crowd out the legitimate voice of people speaking with passion and concern about particular issues. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the work that the Government have done in this regard on protecting journalists. I will be very interested to see where the Government come out with regard to the action plan for the safety of journalists in the context of the online safety Bill. It is incredibly important that journalists are allowed to do their work.

The active denigration by some politicians of the mainstream media is also an attack on democracy and democratic principles. To run down our institutions, including our great media institutions, is also an attack on speech and an attack on our institutions as a democracy. As we all know, there is far more to being a democracy than having elections. The ability to challenge, debate and question those in authority is vital, and it is vitally important for citizens when making informed decisions in elections.

I welcome this debate today, and I welcome the combined efforts we will take to ensure the freedom of journalism, the safety of journalism and the freedom of speech in our open democracy.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:22, 10 June 2021

I understand that time is very tight, and as a courtesy to those Members wishing to participate, I will be as brief as possible. A free and independent press is vital to democracy, and it should go without saying that journalists—indeed, all media—must be able to work free from intimidation or persecution.

Democracy relies on people who have the bravery, the tenacity and the ability to hold the powerful to account, yet according to the 2021 world press freedom survey, 75% of the 180 countries examined are considered problematic, bad or very bad environments for a free press. In that survey, the United Kingdom ranks 33rd. While not the exemplar we probably hoped for, it is better than most. Rather than a blanket condemnation of those we know who would take no notice, I want to appeal to the Government to use what influence they have on their closest friends and allies: Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Bahrain, India, Pakistan and Israel.

Recently, we saw the Israeli air force deliberately targeting and destroying media facilities in Gaza, including two tower blocks that were home to numerous Palestinian and international news agencies, and causing the death of a Palestinian journalist Yousef Abu Hussein when they bombed his home. These attacks have been condemned unreservedly by the International Federation of Journalists, the world’s largest organisation for media professionals. It called on the UN Security Council to intervene to stop what it calls the “systematic targeting” of journalists by Israel. I hope that the Minister will also condemn those attacks and insist that Israel abides by its international obligations to protect media professionals and ends the practice of targeting buildings that house news outlets.

The world press freedom index ranks Saudi Arabia at 170 of 180 countries, and the savage murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the regime in 2017 showed just how frightened it is of a free press. Reporters Without Borders says that Saudi Arabia is the third most censored country on earth, where, with no independent media, journalists are kept in their place through draconian laws, which include harming the image and the reputation of the King and the state. There are about 30 journalists currently in prison in Saudi Arabia, among them the perceived dissidents Ahmed al-Suwian and Fahd al-Sunaidi, who were sentenced to three and a half years each just last year.

This is also a problem much closer to home. Just two weeks ago, the Prime Minister met the Hungarian leader, the right-wing populist Viktor Orbán. I would like to think I am not naive enough to believe that the Prime Minister would have tackled Mr Orbán on his illiberal and authoritarian crackdown on and censorship of Hungary’s free press. In recent years, almost 500 media outlets have been centralised into one giant pro-Government grouping, resulting in Hungary tumbling to 92 on the 2021 index.

Another of the UK’s greatest allies is Bahrain, currently just two places above Saudi Arabia at 168. Bahrain has now made it illegal for journalists to openly criticise Government policies or their decisions. There are several Bahraini journalists currently in jail, including leading human rights activist Nabeel Rahjab, who is serving five years for tweeting about Government corruption, and Mahmoud al-Jaziri, who in recent years has been sentenced to 15 years in jail. In November, 18 individuals, including a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, as well as a respected TV producer, were arrested for simply commenting on the death of Bahrain’s longest-serving Prime Minister on social media.

These are the actions of our closest friends and allies—allies that include India and Pakistan. They are at 142 and 145 on the index, which makes them among the most dangerous and repressive countries in which a journalist can work freely. In India, journalists are reported to have been attacked by the police, ambushed by political activists and targeted by criminal gangs or corrupt local officials. Again, the election of a right-wing populist in the shape of Prime Minister Modi has increased the pressure on Indian media to toe the Government line, and those who resist face calls for their murder in what are clearly co-ordinated hate campaigns on social media. In Kashmir, the Indian Government can and do, without explanation, shut down dissenting media outlets, as they did with the Kashmir Times, while journalists continue to be harassed by police and paramilitaries, among them Aasif Sultan, who was arrested in 2018 and remains in detention today.

It is a very similar story in Pakistan, with reports of the military increasing its influence in civic society, including on free and independent journalism. There are deeply worrying reports of journalists being kidnapped and threatened as to their future actions. Indeed, four journalists were murdered in 2020 in connection with their work, especially when investigating local political corruption and drug trafficking.

There is so much more I would like to say, but I realise that time is short and others wish to speak. In conclusion, I think it is absolutely right that we condemn China, North Korea, Eritrea and others for what they do, but I urge the Government to look at the action and behaviour of their friends and their allies, and to use what influence they have on them to get them to change their ways.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The wind-ups will begin at 4.50 pm. We are now on a three-minute limit.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham 4:28, 10 June 2021

As a foreign correspondent, I have reported from wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. I hope you will indulge me, Mr Deputy Speaker, in reading the names of those British-based journalists who have died in the course of their work since I was the ITN correspondent in Sarajevo. The list is not exhaustive, and of course there are several still missing. It reads: Paul Jenks; Ibrahim Goskel; John Schofield; Vincent Francis; Martin O’Hagan; Roddy Scott; my colleague from ITN, Terry Lloyd; James Miller; Richard Wild; Simon Cumbers; Kate Peyton; Paul Douglas; James Brolan; Martin Adler; Rupert Hamer; Tim Hetherington; Marie Colvin, who I was with during the war in Iraq in 2003; Mick Deane; and most recently, as far as we know, Lyra McKee.

That long list of names is evidence of the fact that proper journalism is eye witness journalism—you have to bear witness yourself; there is no substitute for being there on the ground. This kind of journalism cannot be pursued over the internet, at a distance or even using local sources. This is what gives us a true picture of the world that we cannot get from fake news, internet memes, propaganda and sophisticated Government propaganda, often over Twitter.

But there is a terrible cost to this type of journalism, and we owe a debt to those who have lost their lives in pursuit of the truth. All too often today, news is confused with entertainment—what I call “news entertainment”—and many of those who currently call themselves journalists should be ashamed of themselves. We need to reclaim this heritage and support real news by real journalists.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Labour, Leeds East 4:30, 10 June 2021

I want to start by condemning the recent Israeli air force attacks that destroyed the building housing al-Jazeera and over a dozen media outlets during the assault on Gaza. They say that truth is the first casualty of war. It is clear that this was done to try to stop the world seeing the truth about that horrific assault on Gaza and the humanitarian crisis that it created.

I want to focus today on the role that brave journalists play in exposing war crimes. Regrettably, our country has been involved in too many unjust wars in recent years—wars of conquest, wars for control and wars for oil. Crimes were committed in those wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including, in Iraq, the killing of journalists. Much of what we know about those crimes was exposed by the fearless work of a journalist—a journalist who exposed unlawful killing; a journalist who exposed US renditions; a journalist who exposed the horrors of Guantanamo Bay; a journalist invited to work in this country by The Guardian newspaper; a journalist, who, as we meet today in Parliament for this debate, is sitting in a British high-security prison, solely because of his journalism; a journalist who faces extradition to the United States for his award-winning journalism, carried out here in Britain; a journalist who faces a 175-year sentence for exposing war crimes, which would mean he would spend the rest of his life behind bars in a super-maximum security prison; a journalist whose potential extradition is opposed by Amnesty International, the National Union of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. That journalist is Julian Assange.

I appeal to President Joe Biden, who is in this country for the G7 summit, to drop the charges so that the extradition is called off. Present Biden was, of course, vice-president when President Obama took the decision not to prosecute Julian Assange because of the huge damage it would have done to press freedom. Prosecuting Julian Assange would, in the words of Amnesty International, still have

“a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression”.

That is why I raise this case today. That is why I urge President Biden to do the right thing.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South 4:34, 10 June 2021

As colleagues have said, a free press is integral to democracy and fundamental to ensuring that a society is underpinned by transparency and accountability. At the heart of that is ensuring that journalists are free and safe to do their jobs unhampered and without fear of intimidation or attack.

At home in Northern Ireland, unfortunately, attacks on journalists are not new and have not been confined to the past. This is a society that has always had a sick seam of coercion and intimidation and, unfortunately, that did not disappear with the Good Friday agreement. The last year has seen an alarming rise in the number of violent threats against journalists. Intimidation and threats are exacerbated by a poor legal climate, including overdue libel reform, the vexatious use of injunctions and, indeed, the landmark case against investigative journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey over their treatment of the Loughinisland massacre.

An NUJ report from 2020 highlighted some of the attacks that journalists have experienced physically, verbally and online. It is not hyperbole to say that this is among the most dangerous places in the western world to be a journalist, and that has consequences for public debate. These threats come primarily from paramilitaries and the paramilitary-adjacent, who, in 2021, continue to exert undue influence and coercive control, intimidating communities and silencing those journalists who seek to expose them.

In the last year, alongside relentless on and offline intimidation of several journalists, a Sunday World reporter was issued with a credible threat against her newborn baby. A Belfast Telegraph photojournalist was beaten up and called a “Fenian” at loyalist riots this Easter. A member of the “Panorama” team was forced to flee his home after reporting on a notorious crime gang. And, of course, April 2019 saw the murder of journalist Lyra McKee by dissident republicans—the bloody and devastating consequence of bringing guns and disorder on to the streets.

We cannot talk about the safety of journalists and the freedom of the press without addressing the issue of paramilitarism and organised crime in Northern Ireland. It is still a reality of everyday life for many communities and journalists. It is welcome that the Government have stated their commitment to press freedom and that the Foreign Secretary will continue, he says, to hold to account

“those who repress, block &
intimidate journalists”.

The question is: will this include Northern Ireland? Will the Government commit to ensuring that journalists are able to do their job in safety? Will they ask why, decades after the Good Friday agreement had ceasefired and paramilitaries had ceased to exist their emblems are allowed to fly on lamp posts across the city I live in? Why are they courted and empowered by public bodies, including this Government, who met loyalist paramilitary representatives to discuss post-Brexit arrangements? A cross-party and cross-civil society group has made it clear that no group can be allowed to undermine the freedom of the press and public interest reporting.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury 4:37, 10 June 2021

Politicians and journalists do not always make easy bedfellows, but as MPs we fundamentally respect the right of journalists to report without fear or favour, to comment without the prospect of harassment by the forces of the state. In too many countries, this is still not the case, sometimes with the most horrendous or even fatal consequences, so as a former journalist turned politician I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate.

I began my career in the autumn of 1989—a momentous time, as communism was collapsing and the Berlin wall fell. Many years later, I went to eastern Europe and the middle east to train TV news teams. They had spent most of their working lives terrified of upsetting tyrants. One man told me how colleagues would sometimes just disappear from the newsroom from one day to the next, with no explanation given. This particular journalist was even scared of the consequences of putting a comma in the wrong place in his copy.

Sadly, more recent events in parts of both eastern Europe and the middle east suggest that those days have not entirely disappeared. We have heard of 50 journalists being killed around the world last year and of around 274 imprisoned now, of which about 47 are in China, where there is brutal suppression of the truth about the regime’s repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The BBC World Service has a long and depressing list of examples of the persecution of its journalists. Staff at the BBC Persian service are being consistently harassed and intimidated by Iran. This includes death threats to journalists based here in the UK, along with frightening and aggressive targeting of elderly parents, siblings and extended family members in Iran itself.

The regimes putting journalists at risk do it for one reason: they are scared of the truth. We must stand up to them, because along with the physical harm there is the psychological impact—a justifiable and understandable nervousness that can result in self-censorship. Nor can we be complacent here in the UK—reporters here, especially in broadcasting, face malicious abuse online every day. As ITN says, this creates a chilling effect on journalism. The BBC’s Marianna Spring, whose very job is to tackle disinformation, receives frequent threats. Only four years ago, the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, had to be accompanied by bodyguards at the Labour party conference.

None of that is acceptable. Journalists are not fair game, and we must not turn a blind eye. With a Prime Minister who was formerly a journalist himself, it is apposite that the British Parliament today focuses on the safety of journalists, and that we reaffirm our determination to support a free press in every country of the world—including, of course, our own.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 4:40, 10 June 2021

I speak as the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group. I pay tribute to the work of the NUJ here in the UK, led by its general secretary Michelle Stanistreet and president Sian Jones, and to the work of the International Federation of Journalists to protect journalists across the world.

According to the figures we have received, there are at least 235 journalists in prisons across the world today, and 42 journalists have been killed for doing their job in the last year. It is strong and fearless journalism that makes press freedom worth defending, and we must protect it here and abroad against violence and suppression. I agree with others that the whole House should be condemning the bombing of media companies and the harassment and arrests of journalists operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including the ongoing harassment of the al-Jazeera correspondent in Jerusalem, Givara Budeiri. We must also condemn the jailing of the 12 journalists in recent months in Belarus. We even hear that journalists have been threatened and arrested while covering the Black Lives Matter protests in the US.

We should not be complacent about press freedom on our own shores, either. I agree with my hon. Friend Richard Burgon that it is a continuing stain on the reputation of this country that Julian Assange remains in Belmarsh prison. There are no justifiable grounds for keeping in prison a journalist who had the courage to expose the war crimes and abuse of human rights committed by the world’s leading military powers.

We also have a Government who just yesterday were forced by the courts to release documents detailing how the clearing house unit in the Cabinet Office has blocked freedom of information requests from journalists. I pay tribute to openDemocracy, which pursued this case. I quote the findings of the judge, who said that there was a

“profound lack of transparency about the operation” of this unit that “might appear” even “to extend to Ministers”.

It also does not build confidence in the Government when a Treasury and Equalities Minister publicly attacks a young black journalist and makes false statements about her on social media, seemingly for simply daring to ask the Minister a question. That the Government have been found to be attempting to bully journalists should not come as a surprise when they are led by a Prime Minister who once offered his help to have a journalist beaten up.

In honour of World Press Freedom Day, I offer my thanks to journalists here and around the world who face obstruction, threats and intimidation simply for doing their jobs. We all pay our tribute to them.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:43, 10 June 2021

In a way, today’s debate is slightly poignant for me, because I knew Rory Peck very well as a friend. He was a fantastic journalist, and he was also a bit of a rogue. Shortly before he died in 1993, he bet me a bottle of wine that he would have a little boy for his first child, and I bet him that he would have a little girl. He wrote down the name of the bottle of wine that was the bet, and when I lost it, I had to go and buy a bottle of Haut-Brion, which is one of the finest wines in the world and the most expensive bet I have ever lost. I have never, ever bet a bottle of wine since. That is to digress, but it is poignant for me.

I have several times in this House been a champion of the BBC. I really believe we have to get our own house in order, and I deplore some of the political attacks that we have seen on the BBC. I believe these political attacks undermine our own moral standing when it comes to criticising the arrests, as previous speakers have mentioned, of journalists in Belarus and pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, and the whole awful Ryanair event. My view is that we ain’t got any room for grandstanding until we make ourselves absolutely beyond reproach. In doing so, we will have the moral high ground, and I think it is worth striving for.

Let us just remind ourselves that only last year our special envoy on media freedom quit due to what she saw as the Government’s intentional breaking of international law through the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, saying that their actions threaten to

“embolden autocratic regimes that violate international law with devastating consequences all over the world.”

That shows us where we should not go. We have to do an awful lot more about reaffirming our existing commitments to media freedom, as other speakers have said.

In addition to protecting our journalists in their ability to speak truth, we have to protect those who help them to facilitate the truth being told. That is why I make no apologies for today reiterating my call to offer asylum to the interpreters in Afghanistan, for instance, who have helped British journalists with translation and have been absolutely invaluable to getting the media coverage out. We have a debt of honour to those interpreters.

If we rebuild and enhance our reputation, we will be striking a mighty blow for the truth being the truth in an age when there is so much that is not true.

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:45, 10 June 2021

Dictators hate journalism. Journalism at its finest speaks truth to power. That is why tyrants the world over hate both what they say but also what they represent. Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, was so desperate to silence the brave young journalist Roman Protasevich that he was prepared to hijack his plane and force it to land in Minsk, the capital of his dark regime. Lukashenko wanted him silenced. But we will not rest until he is freed, and we stand with the brave people of Belarus and their journalists against the evil dictator who uses kidnap, rape and murder to try to silence them. It is dangerous to be a journalist.

Israel, a country that sees itself as a western democracy, took the opportunity afforded by its recent onslaught against Gaza to use fighter jets to bomb the building housing Associated Press and al-Jazeera. It was a direct attack on press freedom and an attempt to silence those reporting the bombardment of a captive Palestinian population by a military superpower. No journalists were killed that day. But Israel has form, and we remember that in a previous Israeli onslaught in 2003, James Miller, a multi-Emmy award winning Welsh cameraman, was murdered by Israeli troops who continued to fire on him even after the reporter he was with shouted, “We are British journalists.”

There have been so many killings of journalists that it seems almost invidious to single any individuals out. But we all remember Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times correspondent killed when Assad’s troops, almost certainly targeting her, shelled the building in Homs where she was sheltering as she covered the regime’s atrocities. Closer to home, it took the shooting of Lyra McKee in Derry by IRA thugs to get Northern Ireland’s recalcitrant political leaders to issue a joint statement condemning her murder as an attack on the political process and democracy. Although Frank Gardner survived an al-Qaeda attack, we are forever reminded of the price he paid when we see him reporting on our screens from a wheelchair. Brave and fearless every one of them, armed only with a pen, microphone or camera, killed by cowards bombing and shooting from afar.

Today here in this House we honour a fine craft and resolve, I hope, as parliamentarians, to affirm, whatever our politics, the right of journalists, whether at home or abroad, to scrutinise and examine, to probe and uncover without fear or favour. It is an ever more dangerous craft, but never has it been more needed.

Photo of Neale Hanvey Neale Hanvey Alba, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath 4:49, 10 June 2021

I will be as quick as I possibly can.

One of the most outstanding achievements of the 2014 referendum movement was the creation of new media. One of the strongest voices in that new media was former British ambassador and former Dundee University rector Craig Murray. Craig—a man who is over 60 and in poor health—has recently been sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment for the contempt of jigsaw identification, which is imprecise, ill-defined and unable to be demonstrated or tested rigorously because it would identify people who are meant to remain anonymous.

Various opinion polls have been conducted, including two by Panelbase. None has identified Craig Murray as a source of jigsaw identification. In fact, the top hit on that Panelbase poll was a journalist, Dani Garavelli—

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:50, 10 June 2021

I think this is one of those subjects where, in principle, every Member of the House can agree, but it is in the detail—whether domestically or internationally —that we need to scrutinise Government action. Members right across the House have raised issues on which the Government must and should do more.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee, Damian Collins, for his support on SLAPPs and for raising issues around journalistic freedom in the Philippines, one of the world’s most brutal regimes. He spoke about the need to protect journalists in the upcoming online safety Bill. I am sure that we will work closely with him on that.

Brendan O’Hara commented on a wide range of countries—some of which I failed to mention, so I thank him for that—including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Hungary, where Orbán has used Government media for racist attacks, but restricted the free press; indeed, in some cases, he has expelled the free press from the country. The hon. Member also spoke about Israel, which I mentioned, as did many Members, in the context of the attacks in Gaza. It was no accident that many countries that he mentioned have right-wing populist Governments. Something that those Governments have in common is the restriction of freedom of the press, so that they can carry out their agenda.

I associate myself with the speech of Adam Holloway, who has had a distinguished journalistic career. I pay tribute to those British journalists who have been killed for reporting the truth to the world.

I thank my not quite constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Richard Burgon, and my right hon. Friend John McDonnell, who pointed out that destroying the AP building in Gaza was about restricting reporting on that conflict. They have a strong record and history in seeking the fair judicial treatment of journalists facing prosecution related to reporting, and I am sure they will continue to do so.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington also rightly praised the NUJ, which fiercely defends the rights of its members—our journalists—whether they are here in the UK or around the world. He also mentioned the work of openDemocracy, which does a brilliant job of safeguarding our freedoms here in the UK and holding the Government to account.

My hon. Friend Claire Hanna made an exemplary speech, and was absolutely right to remind us that journalists in Northern Ireland continue to receive threats and restrictions on their reporting. The Government must do far more to protect journalists in Northern Ireland. The murder of Lyra McKee must result in justice, and the lessons need to be learned so that no more journalists are killed in Northern Ireland. It is vital that we, on our own shores, protect our own journalists.

Jamie Stone was right to highlight the fact that Amal Clooney quit as UK envoy on press freedom, as our own Government failed to stick to international law.

John Nicolson was totally correct to highlight the horrendous kidnapping of the journalist Roman Protasevich, whose only crime was telling the truth about the brutal regime of his country, Belarus.

I hope that the Minister will give us assurances that he can and will do more to ensure press freedom both here—I did not hear very much in his opening speech to make me feel confident that he will do more here—and globally. He has made many assurances, not just today but last week and in the past, about protecting British journalists and international journalists right around the world, so that they are free to report.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Minister of State 4:54, 10 June 2021

I thank every Member who has contributed to what has been an excellent debate, even if it has been brief. Inevitably and depressingly, it has been something of a tour of the globe, which is a reflection of the number of countries where to be a journalist is still a dangerous occupation.

I cannot go through every single country that was mentioned, but I was interested to hear the Opposition spokesman, Alex Sobel, refer to the work he has done with the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I thought I would mention that since you, Mr Deputy Speaker, were a distinguished chair of the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union and I had the privilege of taking over from you. I know that the hon. Gentleman is also active in the BGIPU. Alongside the Government’s efforts, the IPU has done a lot to highlight the importance of freedom of the press. We will continue to work internationally through organisations such as the G7 and the Council of Europe. I should also mention the work of my colleague in the Foreign Office, Lord Ahmad, who is the Minister responsible in this policy area and who is extremely active.

I want to talk specifically about what is happening in this country and to highlight one or two contributions to the debate. My hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) and for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) spoke with considerable experience, having both worked as broadcast reporters, and recounted some of their knowledge of this issue. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham, who reminded us of the sadly long list of British journalists—a number of whom were referred to—who have lost their lives in the course of their duties. Jamie Stone talked about Rory Peck, and it is worth paying tribute to the work done by the Rory Peck Trust, which was established in his name, to support freelance journalists who suffer in the ways mentioned.

There are of course still challenges to meet in this country. My hon. Friend Damian Collins highlighted the use of what are now called strategic lawsuits against public participation. He will know that the Government have made changes to the law on defamation that we believe make such lawsuits more difficult, but he also cited current examples, so it is certainly something that we need to monitor. It has been highlighted as a way in which people can try to suppress legitimate journalism. My hon. Friend also mentioned the online safety legislation that we will use to put in place extra protection for the work of journalists, in recognition of the importance of the freedom of the press.

Claire Hanna made an excellent speech. She highlighted the particular risks of being a journalist in Northern Ireland. A representative of the Police Service of Northern Ireland serves on the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, and I have had meetings with the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend Mr Walker to discuss these matters, but we are conscious that great abuse of journalists who operate in Northern Ireland still takes place. Of course, as the hon. Member for Leeds North West said, the most recent tragic death of a journalist in the course of carrying out her work was that of Lyra McKee from Belfast.

We have taken a really strong lead in this policy area with the establishment of the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists. We have published a national action plan, and we have the commitment of all those who serve on that committee to take more action, but of course we recognise that more needs to be done.

As I say, I am grateful to all those who have contributed to this afternoon’s debate and brought with them her own experience of having previously worked in journalism. I finish by paying tribute to all journalists, and in particular to those who have risked their lives and continue to do so on a daily basis in pursuit of exposing truth.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the safety of journalists.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

From all of us at the House of Commons I wish all the team working for the launch of GB News on Sunday the very best of British as they start an important role reporting the news that impacts on all our lives. That team contains many journalists whom we all know and greatly respect, so good luck to them all.