Society calls on Ministry of Defence to respond to press freedom censorship concerns

Posted on: September 7, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The Society of Editors (SoE) has called on the Ministry of Defence to respond to censorship concerns after the Council of Europe accused it of threatening press freedom.

The criticism comes as the Council, comprised of 47-member states, issued a level-two press freedom alert against the UK government on Friday, accusing the Ministry of Defence of blacklisting Declassified UK, a military and foreign policy news website, and refusing to answer journalistic questions or provide the outlet with official information.

The Council of Europe issued the Level 2 “media freedom alert” following an alleged incident on 25 August 2020 in which a Declassified UK journalist sought comment from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) following the arrest of Ahmed al Babati, a serving soldier, near Downing Street for protesting the United Kingdom’s involvement in Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen. During the exchange, the journalist was allegedly asked what “sort of angle” the publication took on the war in Yemen before being told that the Ministry no longer responded to the news outlet.  

Writing to the Ministry of Defence, Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors sought clarification that it was not the official policy of the MOD to single out UK news organisations for favourable or unfavourable treatment.

He said: “While the Society recognises that unfavourable coverage by a news outlet can be frustrating, it is the role of journalists to ask questions without fear or favour. The Society is concerned that by refusing to engage with Declassified UK, the Ministry is depriving readers of not only accurate news and information, but the Ministry of Defence’s viewpoint on a matter of legitimate public debate.  We would welcome assurances that it is not the policy of the Ministry of Defence to provide favourable or unfavourable treatment to UK news outlets.

“Freedom of the press is essential in any democratic society and, at this time of national uncertainty, accurate news and information has never been more important. At a time when the UK government has openly criticised other countries for using the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on legitimate news reporting and attempt to control the public’s right to know, it is worrying that the perception of the UK government’s stance on press freedom could be influenced by this incident.”

The Council of Europe, partnering with the International Press Institute (IPI) described the decision not to respond to Declassified as an “act having a chilling effect on media freedom” and agreed that it set a worrying precedent for other journalists whose job it is to report on matters of public interest related to the UK military.

Murray added: “Any decision to blacklist a UK news outlet would be very much at odds with the pledges made by our officials on the importance of media freedom both at home and abroad. It would also be at odds with the Prime Minister’s own assertion this weekend that it is “completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news”. His comments followed the widely-reported blockade of UK printing plants by environmental group Extinction Rebellion which was strongly condemned by the Society and resulted in the delayed delivery of several UK national and regional newspapers on Saturday.”

The Society has previously raised censorship and favouritism concerns with the government following an attempt by Number 10 in February 2020, to bar journalists from a selective lobby briefing. The concerns followed an open letter signed by all national newspaper editors to Downing Street in January 2020 calling for No 10 to safeguard press freedom with assurances that no news organisation or journalist would be barred from entering Downing Street under new arrangements for lobby briefings.