Government responds to “passing interest” in media freedom concerns

Posted on: April 1, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The government has reaffirmed its commitment to media freedom in response to concerns by the Foreign Affairs Committee that it has a “passing interest” in sustaining its global press freedom campaign.

The government’s assurances, published yesterday in response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s 2019 report on Media freedom is under attack”: The FCO’s defence of an endangered liberty”, also come in light of accusations by the committee that “the UK is seen as trading away its values” when it comes to defending press freedom on the global stage.

The committee called on the government in 2019 to ‘do more in public to shame those who persecute the media’ and criticised the FCO for its ‘preferred method [of a] firm word behind closed doors, especially when other UK interests are involved’ rather than doing more to publicly condemn countries that persecute journalists.

The government’s assurances come as, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Society of Editors has called on the Foreign Office to encourage countries to work alongside the media to tackle the virus. It has also warned that some governments are using the pandemic as a means of clamping down on press freedoms and attempting to control the narrative around Covid-19.

The government has responded to concerns by the Foreign Affairs Committee by reiterating its commitment to holding those that abuse press freedoms to account and said that it was looking at different approaches to engaging with countries that continue to flout human rights obligations.

It said: “We agree that there should be costs to countries that abuse the media. There are a range of ways to impose these costs, including through diplomatic means, legal frameworks, sanctions and multilateral fora. The Committee is right that most of our initiatives, by their nature, focus on those countries that are willing and able, or willing but lacking capacity to promote and protect media freedom. We agree that different approaches are needed for those who are unwilling to act, or purposefully taking action against media freedom.”

In responding to criticism that the “UK is seen as trading away its values on press freedom” by not doing enough to publicly condemn attacks on press freedom in light of competing interests, the government said it was committed to holding abusers to account. 

It added: “The UK is committed to raising these challenging human rights issues at all levels. We do not shy away from delivering tough messages, including in public. On some occasions, an intervention in private is assessed as the best way to make progress; on others, a public intervention is better suited. We agree with the Committee’s underlying recommendation that there must be consequences for those who abuse or restrict media freedom—that is one of the prime objectives of the campaign.”

The government pointed to the work of Foreign Office Minister Lord Ahmad in raising individual cases of human rights abuses against journalists.

It said: “One of our key objectives with the Media Freedom Coalition is to ensure we are lobbying and raising cases in a more systematic way, so we can deliver those messages more forcefully and have a greater impact. Coalition members agreed at their meeting in January a collective intent to speak out publicly and lobby in private on individual cases and situations of concern.”

In response to calls by the committee to introduce a sanctions regime against governments who persecute the media, the FCO confirmed that secondary legislation was in the process of being drafted to introduce a new Global Human Rights Sanction regime.

The committee’s call for sanctions was echoed in January 2020 by a report by the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom to introduce targeted sanctions to end the impunity of attacks against journalists worldwide.

The government responded: “The UK is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and a global sanctions regime will allow us to respond to serious human rights violations or abuses anywhere in the world. It will impose asset freeze and travel ban measures and will be used to sanction perpetrators of serious human rights abuses or violations globally. This could include, for example, unlawful killings perpetrated against journalists and media workers. We will announce our first designations under the Global Human Rights Sanctions regime once the Global Human Rights secondary legislation is made.”

The government confirmed that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was continuing to work across government on the establishment of a UK National Committee for the Safety of Journalists. It has previously been announced that the plan will examine current protections offered to journalists in the UK and consider how countries can work together to build on existing strengths.

It was expected that the Global Media Defence Fund, administered by UNESCO and with the purpose of supporting, training and providing legal support for journalists in the most dangerous parts of the world, would open to bids from civil society in March/April 2020, the government confirmed.

The UK would continue to take the lead on the media freedom campaign jointly with Canada, the government confirmed, before handing over the reins to them at the second Global Media Freedom Conference that they will be hosting in Quebec on 17–18 September. The UK will remain strongly engaged in the campaign as a co-chair of the Media Freedom Coalition, the government said. The Coalition is comprised of 35 governments who have signed up to a pledge that commits them to speak out and take action together when media freedom is at risk, and to champion the cause around the world. The UK has continued to encourage signatories to the campaign with Japan and Cyrus expected to do so, the government confirmed.

The published response can be read in full here.