Journalists: International Protection

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:19 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State 5:19 pm, 9th January 2019

That tribute has indeed been paid. I also take on board the proposal that we support a UN representative or convention on the protection of journalists. I know that is something that is actively being pursued.

In the coming year and beyond, we will strengthen our efforts yet further. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon referred to the work being done by the new Foreign Secretary, who is very focused on this issue. We shall continue to work through those important multilateral bodies to galvanise consensus and effect change, and we are looking actively for ways of building on their work. We will also use our membership of like-minded groupings, such as the Freedom Online Coalition and the Community of Democracies, to step up our efforts specifically to promote media freedom and the safety of journalists. We shall continue to work closely with civil society and media organisations to ensure that we use the influencing power of Government to good effect, to complement and build on their own efforts. However, it is also important that we ramp up the bilateral response with countries with whom we have strong connections, whether through the Department for International Development or in a range of other areas. We will continue to work together in that regard.

We must also recognise that we cannot do all this work alone. That is why, later this year, we will host in London an international conference on media freedom. Our aim is to bring the issue to global attention, promote the value and benefits of a free media—indeed, a free internet—to a wider audience, and mobilise an international consensus behind the protection of journalists, as the obvious guardians of those freedoms.

A robust, free, vibrant and varied media landscape is also one of the best antidotes to hostile state disinformation. Like restrictions on the media, disinformation also requires a concerted response. Here, too, we feel that the UK is at the forefront of a growing international consensus on the need for action. At home, we are drawing, among other things, on the experience of our Nordic and Baltic partners, which means taking a whole-of-society approach to this matter. That involves working towards three key objectives in relation to disinformation: first, deterring the use of disinformation by exposing and disrupting the perpetrators; secondly, increasing transparency and accountability online to make it more difficult and less rewarding to spread disinformation; and thirdly, making people more resilient through education and empowerment. We are investing £100 million in that effort around the world, which includes, at the moment, £8.5 million in eastern Europe and central Asia alone.

To respond to some specific points raised by Members, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and Ann Clwyd talked about Iran. The reports of BBC staff in Iran being harassed and subjected to asset freezes and similar forms of mistreatment are deeply worrying. The Foreign Secretary specifically raised our concerns about the harassment of BBC Persia staff and their families in Iran when he was there during his visit on 9 and 10 December. Officials at the British embassy in Tehran have also twice raised concerns with leading figures in the Iranian Government. Members should be made aware that in December 2018, we once again co-sponsored the UN General Assembly’s resolution on the human rights situation in Iran, specifically highlighting the poor record on freedom of expression.

Joanna Cherry asked about the case of Mr Huseynov in Azerbaijan. We regularly express our concerns about the rights of political prisoners with the Azeri authorities. Over the past two years, we have attended a number of Mr Huseynov’s court hearings, and we met with his lawyer most recently on 3 January this year. The UK will continue to follow the case closely and is considering next steps with our international partners.

I will conclude with this thought. A free press is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, because it holds the powerful to account, helps to expose corruption and lack of integrity, and is one of the best antidotes to disinformation. That is why we must take action to stop the intimidation, harassment and persecution of journalists across the world, and is why this year we will place as many of the resources as we can from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—not only financial, but in time terms, too—behind a campaign to reverse the worrying trends outlined in this debate.