Journalists: International Protection

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:13 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 5:13 pm, 9th January 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my right hon. Friend, if I may call him that, Mr Whittingdale on securing and introducing this debate. This is a timely moment to have such a debate, and in many ways it is a shame that it could not be for three hours, not the one hour. I congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part on their excellent contributions. They were brief contributions, but powerful none the less.

I think that Labour Members strongly agree with the proposal made by the right hon. Gentleman that there should be a new UN convention on the protection of journalists. We also heard contributions from my right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd, John Howell, my colleague and hon. Friend John Grogan, who in the past was, I believe, chair of the all-party parliamentary BBC group, my colleague and friend Fiona Bruce, Joanna Cherry, Bob Stewart, who always tells excellent and very relevant stories from his own experience, Jim Shannon and Priti Patel. I thank them all for their extremely good contributions.

The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi last year was a frighteningly vivid reminder of the serious threats that journalists face globally today. It is the most dangerous time to be a journalist globally in more than a decade. As has been said this afternoon, the freedom of the press is one of the most powerful platforms for freedom of expression. It is a means of informing, of scrutinising and of disseminating information and is a fundamental pillar of democracy. Article 19 of the UN universal declaration of human rights states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression;
this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The protection of journalists and their sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom, but in the last two years alone journalists have been murdered in Europe—in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Malta. Organisations such as Reporters Without Borders have called on Governments, including the British Government, to create a special rapporteur with the responsibility to protect journalists and press freedom. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about that in a few minutes.

I shall give some statistics to remind hon. Members here this afternoon. In 2018, 94 journalists were killed, an increase from 82 in the previous year—far too many. Afghanistan was the most dangerous country in which to be a journalist, with 16 journalists and reporters murdered. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 251 journalists were jailed for their work in 2018. There are currently 126 journalists detained across member states of the Council of Europe, and almost 70 of those are in Turkey, as we heard. It is the case that 98% of jailed journalists are local people imprisoned by their own Governments, that 62% of journalists killed covered politics and political activity, and that 70% of jailed journalists imprisoned globally were arrested on anti-state charges, including terrorism.

Fewer than 10% of the killings of journalists end up with a prosecution. The impunity definitely exacerbates the cycle of violence against journalists. As we have heard, three countries—Turkey, China and Egypt—were responsible for more than half the journalists jailed globally. There has been an increase in politicians and other individuals labelling journalists as “enemies” and making false and damaging claims about the media.

Examples include Donald Trump—he has already been mentioned today—labelling media outlets such as the Washington Post and CNN as enemies of the people; media outlets run by close associates of Viktor Orbán in Hungary listing journalists and academics as “mercenaries” for George Soros; in Turkey, President Erdoğan forcing the closure of media outlets for allegedly “terrorist propaganda” and supporting the 2016 coup attempt; and BBC Persian staff in Iran, as we have heard, having their assets frozen. I am very grateful to Julia Harris from the BBC World Service for the information that she provided to me and all of us this afternoon. She does an excellent job for the World Service. Other examples are media outlets in Venezuela—this has not been mentioned—being forced to shut down by authorities alleging irregularities in their licences and, as we have heard today, authorities in Azerbaijan targeting the last independent news agency in the country, Turan, with claims of “financial irregularities”.

The results are that many media outlets are shut down and quite often the licences and assets of those organisations are given to close supporters of the Government or regime in those countries. Of course, that means reduced media pluralism and the creation of pliant media that will toe the Government line. We all stand against that and we all need to do more to oppose it and to ensure that journalists have the freedom that keeps our society free and fair.