Detention of Assange and ‘alarming’ legislative proposals continue to affect UK press freedom ranking

Posted on: May 3, 2022 by Claire Meadows

The prolonged detention of Julian Assange, freedom of information failures and ‘alarming’ proposals for reform to official secrets laws continue to impact the UK’s press freedom record, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has today warned.

Releasing its 2022 World Press Freedom Index on World Press Freedom Day, RSF said that while the UK’s press freedom ranking was judged as “satisfactory”, issues including media plurality, the ongoing process to extradite Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) to intimidate journalists, continued to pose a threat to media freedom in the country.

Referencing “worrisome governmental legislative proposals” which include reforms to official secrets laws that could see journalists jailed for “espionage”, RSF also warned that extensive restrictions on freedom of information, the prolonged detention of Julian Assange, and threats to the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland have impacted the UK’s press freedom record.

It said: “A worrying political climate continued to impact press freedom in the UK, including the revival of an alarming proposal for reforms to official secrets laws that could see journalists jailed for “espionage”. Journalists faced extensive freedom of information restrictions, with reports surfacing of a secretive government clearing house for freedom of information requests.

On the topic of Julian Assange’s continued detention at Belmarsh prison, RSF said that the US government’s ongoing extradition request to prosecute him for publishing information of public interest is “impacting both countries’ press freedom records”. The Index also warned that “a proliferation of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) has helped make London the “defamation capital of the world”, with journalists from the UK and around the world forced to defend their reporting in British courts.” In addition, the “costly nature and threat of libel action in the UK” has left many independent media outlets and freelance journalists unable to take on investigations into certain topics or forced to crowdfund for legal support it said.

Journalists covering organised crime and paramilitary activities remained at great risk in Northern Ireland the Index warned and “the safety of journalists continues to be a concern in Northern Ireland”.

It added: “A series of violent riots broke out in loyalist areas of Northern Ireland in 2021, creating risks to the safety of journalists covering the riots. A shadow remains cast by lingering impunity for the 2001 murder of Sunday World journalist Martin O’Hagan.

“Journalists experiencing threats often pointed to an insufficient police response. No one has yet been brought to trial for the murder of Lyra McKee in Derry in April 2019, although further arrests were made in 2021. The publication of a National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists in March 2021 was a welcome step.”

The methodology for the RSF Annual World Press Freedom Index has changed this year with the Index created using a combination of a quantitative survey of press freedom violations and abuses as well as a qualitative study based on a questionnaire answered by hundreds of experts. Under the new methodology the UK is ranked 24th out of 180 countries. Norway is currently ranked #1 for press freedom with North Korea ranked the worst.