Journalists: International Protection

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:08 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 5:08 pm, 9th January 2019

The number of Members here despite the magnitude of events in the main Chamber just goes to show the high regard in which we hold international journalists. I do not have time to go through everybody’s contributions, but I congratulate Mr Whittingdale on bringing the debate to the House and particularly on his proposals for a UN special representative on the safety of journalists. I think that proposal will garner cross-party support, and I will absolutely add my name to it. I studied media and journalism, and when I was at university I wanted to be a war correspondent—I held the likes of Kate Adie up as absolute stars. I did not realise that dream, but I did end up in another reasonably good job.

Over the holidays, I read Lindsey Hilsum’s book “In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin”. Her incredible life is depicted in a film that is about to come out, “A Private War”. The places that Marie reported on included Chechnya, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Sri Lanka—where she was injured and lost an eye—Syria and Africa. She was, we believe, assassinated in Syria in 2012. She held Martha Gellhorn, who reported the rise of fascism in the 1930s, in high regard; Gellhorn was one of her heroes. The plight of female journalists is a particular issue. As we have seen in recent years, all international journalists are under threat and it is an increasingly dangerous time, but female journalists in particular have had terrible experiences.

In an address that Marie Colvin gave at St Bride’s church on Fleet Street when she returned from Afghanistan, she reflected on the injury suffered by a colleague who stepped on a landmine and had to have both legs amputated. She said:

“The expectation of that blast is the stuff of nightmares.”

I want to share with the House something else that she said:

“We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”

Lindsey Hilsum wrote about Marie’s determination to bear witness and its importance. She said that Marie was

“the champion of bearing witness so that even if no one stopped the wars, they could never say they had not known what was happening.”

That goes to the heart of the issue. Marie’s death, or assassination, in 2012 was a tragedy not only for her family and friends, but for journalism and the truth. Her ability to report and bear witness was vital.

Journalists are our eyes and ears on the international stage. They go where we cannot. They see what we cannot see. They hear what we cannot hear. That is particularly important for politicians. There is often a relationship of conflict between journalists and politicians, but we must hold them in the highest regard—indeed, cherish them—because their accounts help to direct our decisions about aid and about troops and intervention. Without them, we are blind to the great atrocities that, as we have heard, many Governments and regimes are visiting upon their own people and other nations.

If we do not protect international journalists, if we do not protect their integrity and their safety, we risk becoming detached and distanced. I want and hope to hear from the Minister what more we can do, particularly from a Foreign Office perspective, because as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services and assistance, I have interviewed a number of partners of those who have been incarcerated, including Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari, and Daniela, the wife of Matthew Hedges, who was studying in the United Arab Emirates. Their experiences are unbelievable. We must remember that academics and researchers are just as important as journalists. We must be able to protect them, and we must not fall foul of the trade relationships that we may have with countries coming above the diplomatic relationships that we have, in protecting journalists and others who in order to tell stories travel to places where we cannot go.