Society seeks Foreign Office assurances about treatment of journalists in Hungary and Turkey

Posted on: April 1, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The Society of Editors has written to the Foreign Office asking what actions the government intends to take against countries that are using the coronavirus pandemic as a means to clamp down on press freedom.

Writing to Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister for the Commonwealth and UN, the Society raised serious concerns about the passage this week of indefinite emergency laws in Hungary and the decision by Turkey not to include imprisoned journalists in a list of those to be temporarily released during the spread of Covid-19.

The Society’s call for assurances came as the government renewed its commitment to global press freedom in a published response to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said that while the Foreign Office’s renewed commitment to raising challenging human rights issues at all levels was a welcome one, updates were needed on what actions the government intended to take against countries that were using the current global health emergency as a veil to clamp down on press freedoms.

He said: “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. The Society has welcomed the UK government’s acknowledgement of the vital role that the media here must play during this coronavirus crisis and we were pleased to see the designation of all journalists as key workers.

“Despite the UK government’s recognition of the important role of journalists during this crisis, the Society has raised concerns recently that other countries are using the pandemic as a means to clamp down on the freedom of the press and to censor the media in an attempt to control the narrative around Covid-19. You may have seen that this week we have highlighted our disquiet over actions taken towards journalists and moves against freedom of speech in Hungary.

The Society said that democratic norms in Hungary have been gradually eroded in recent years and the new powers, passed this week allowing the government to impose jail terms of up to five years for those deemed to be “distorting” the facts and spreading misinformation around Covid-19, raised legitimate concerns that the measures could be used against journalists critical of the government.

Murray added: “The indefinite nature of the new powers also present a real risk that this clampdown will outlive the current health emergency. If not now, the laws could be used in the future to stifle criticism and debate. Hungary now risks setting a dangerous precedent for other countries worldwide who may be considering using similar powers to clamp down on freedom of expression during this crisis.”

The Society also expressed concerns that, under current proposals, plans to temporarily release prisoners in Turkish jails would not include jailed journalists and human rights defenders.

He added: “The Society is also concerned that while Turkey prepares to grant amnesties to up to one third of the country’s prison population in order to combat the coronavirus pandemic, jailed journalists and human rights activists will not be among those considered for early release. Amid growing concerns over the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, it is essential that those who have been imprisoned for exercising their rights to freedom of speech are unconditionally released.  

“Given the Foreign Office’s stated commitment to raising human rights abuses on the global stage, I would welcome any update on what action the government is taking in relation to Hungary and the fact that Turkey still considers journalists as enemies of the state.”

The letter can be read in full here.