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Russia (Exclusion of Journalist)

Volume 523: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on the expulsion from Russia this weekend of the journalist for The Guardian, the Moscow correspondent Mr Luke Harding.

On Saturday 5 February Luke Harding, a British journalist and correspondent on Russia for The Guardian, was refused entry to Russia at Moscow airport and sent back to the United Kingdom. Mr Harding is a journalist who knows Russia well and has, over the last four years, given readers of The Guardian genuine insight into that country.

A free media and freedom of expression are a vital element of any free and democratic society—and the Government deplore any restriction on those freedoms. Mr Harding was not given any explanation for his exclusion and it is unclear to us at this stage whether he has the right of appeal against this decision.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the editor of The Guardian over the weekend and subsequently to the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, by telephone yesterday. My right hon. Friend asked Foreign Minister Lavrov to explain the reasons behind the decision to decline entry to Mr Harding. Mr Lavrov said that he was not aware of the specific reason, but promised to find out and let us know. We are yet to receive a response, but we understand that the Russians are actively looking into the issue. We have since passed this information to the editor of The Guardian.

We understand that Mr Harding had previously been warned by the Russian authorities about several alleged violations of his status as a journalist, including visits without permission to border zones and classified areas. Indeed, last November The Guardian approached us asking for support to secure Mr Harding’s reaccreditation as a journalist when his accreditation had been withdrawn. We then made representations to Moscow at a senior level, and in the event Mr Harding was granted an extension of his accreditation as a journalist.

We have raised our concerns about media freedom in Russia, most recently during our bilateral human rights dialogue with the Russian Government on 18 January. As the House will know, Foreign Minister Lavrov is due to visit this country next week. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will raise various issues—including, most certainly, human rights and media freedom—during his discussions with Mr Lavrov. Knowing my right hon. Friend, I am confident that he will have this case very much in mind when he does so.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. As he has said, Luke Harding is a thorough, meticulous and courageous journalist—qualities that are essential for anyone working as an independent journalist in today’s Russia. His British wife and young children are now stuck in Moscow without him. As the Minister said, when he tried to enter Russia this week he was detained before being put on a plane back to London. I am told that as his passport was handed back to him the Russian police officer told him, “For you, Russia is closed.”

Is this not a pretty chilling state of affairs? Does it not accord with the harassment of the last British ambassador to Moscow, the rigged trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the persecution of journalist Fatima Tlisova, and the murder of her colleague Anna Politkovskaya, with which no one has yet been charged and of which no one has yet been found guilty? Does it not also accord with the revelation that the Russian security service press office which deals with journalists’ inquiries has now been given authority to issue licences for the routine bugging and surveillance of all journalists operating in Russia?

The United Kingdom has vast financial interests in Russia. Will not British businesses be nervous, fearing that this shows a return to the worst practices of the communist era? Will people not think that those who have suggested that Russia is a mafia state or a kleptocracy are not far off the mark?

What actions has the Foreign Office taken on behalf of Mr Harding and his family? I gather that the Russian Foreign Minister—who, as the Minister said, is expected to visit London next week—maintains that he knows nothing of the circumstances. What further representations will our Government make? Will they make it clear that Mr Lavrov is not welcome in this country while British journalists are excluded from Russia? Will they emphasise that, as a member of the Council of Europe, Russia must ensure the freedom of the press within its borders? May I urge all Government Members who are Council of Europe delegates and sit in the same grouping as Russian members of Mr Putin’s party to make absolutely clear to them that these actions are completely unacceptable?

We will certainly offer whatever consular support we are able to give to Mr Harding’s family. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that events have been moving very rapidly over the past few days. As I said in my original answer, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will raise both the broader human rights concerns and, as appropriate, the case of Mr Harding—and, indeed, other individual cases—during his discussions with Mr Lavrov when they meet next week.

I think it important for the United Kingdom to continue to talk to Russia. Russia is a significant power in the world in both an economic and political and a military context. There will be issues, relating to counter-terrorism and nuclear proliferation, on which we want to find a certain amount of common cause with Russia, but it is also important—and the hon. Gentleman was right to stress this—that we are unafraid to raise very clearly in our discussions with Russian Ministers and officials issues on which we disagree, and disagree strongly.

While the British Government will continue to support British business in its work around the world, we also make it clear to Russia and, indeed, other countries that if they seek to attract international investment in their economies, it is in their interests to be able to demonstrate that they are governed by the rule of law which respects fundamental human rights, including the freedom of the media.

I endorse the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that we in this House have always recognised that, although freedom of the press is sometimes uncomfortable, it is absolutely vital to a free society? Does he also agree that the treatment of Luke Harding is a matter of some concern, but that it is of even greater concern that half a dozen or more journalists have been killed or have disappeared in Russia in the past few years? Will he make absolutely sure that those coming to this country from Russia are left in no doubt as to how seriously we regard that?

My hon. Friend makes good and sensible points. We consistently raise both individual cases and the broader issues to which he rightly ascribes importance with Russian visitors to the United Kingdom, but they are also raised by British Ministers and officials when visiting Russia, and we will continue that practice.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for tabling this urgent question. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will be extremely concerned about the detention and then the expulsion from Russia of Luke Harding. Freedom of the press should be one of the cornerstones of a modern democratic country. Therefore, this incident can only reflect badly on the Russian Government, especially as it is, unfortunately, not an isolated instance of the negation of press freedom. It is, indeed, of great concern that such a respected and highly regarded journalist as Mr Harding should be treated in such a way.

I am glad that the Government share the Opposition’s concern about what is happening in Russia, and I urge the Government to continue to make urgent and vigorous representations to the Russian Government. I also urge the Government to ask for specific reassurances regarding British journalists. Moreover, can the Minister urge the Prime Minister to raise the case of Mr Harding when he visits Russia later this year?

I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will raise human rights issues when he talks to Russian leaders, whether during his visit to Moscow that we hope will take place later this year, or at the margins of other international gatherings where he might meet members of the Russian leadership. It is very much in the interests of the Russian Government that they start to demonstrate that they respect international norms on human rights and media freedoms, not least because Russia itself has signed up to the various European and international conventions that embody those principles.

Notwithstanding the damage this incident does to Russia’s international image, does my right hon. Friend agree that, at a time when the Russian Government are seeking support for their membership of the World Trade Organisation, their not abiding by international norms does not advance their case?

One of the strongest arguments for wishing to see Russia accede to the WTO is that it would bring Russia into a rules-based organisation governing world trade. I think—I hope—that the Russian authorities will reflect on the impact decisions such as that over Mr Harding and those over many other individual cases will have on how they are seen by countries around the world and international organisations with which they wish to develop stronger relationships.

It is certainly true that Russia has become more oppressive and that it does not respect the agreements that it has signed. Would it not be a great shame if the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, which are the main protectors of freedom in Russia and many other countries in Europe, were undermined this week by attacks in this House? Should the right hon. Gentleman not urge his hon. Friends to make sure that the valuable work of the ECHR continues?

I will not be drawn into what the House might be debating later this week, but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point when he says that, alongside those decisions of the ECHR with which we might strongly disagree, we must weigh in the scales its decisions, as in the case of Russia, to uphold firmly basic human rights and personal and media freedoms, and its severe criticism of the Russian authorities for their failure to do so.

Luke Harding’s expulsion is an extremely concerning development amid the complete lack of media freedom in Russia. It comes on the heels of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and the violent attack on Oleg Kashin in November, and shows the real danger in which both foreign and local journalists operate in Russia, which makes a mockery of Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe. Even if the Russians refuse to see why, morally or liberally, this is totally unacceptable, can they at least be persuaded that it is hugely damaging to their own interests because of its impact on foreign trade, investment and their place in the world?

I agree completely with that last point. We will certainly continue to raise with the Russians the individual cases and general issues that the hon. Lady cited, as we did during the human rights dialogue that took place last month in London. We will also continue to give support to a number of both Russian and international non-governmental organisations that seek to monitor alleged human rights abuses and uphold basic freedoms, especially in the north Caucasus.

In November 1992, I heard the then Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, tell the assembled Commons and Lords that there would be no return to the old ways in his country. Is it not unfortunate that, increasingly, Russia is returning to autocratic ways? It would be a great blow not only to the Russian people but to the international community if the worst aspects of tsarism and communism were to return to that country.

When I look at Russian history what strikes me is how much the Russian people have suffered over the past century. I would dearly love to see Russia playing its full part as a member of the community of nations, including by showing respect for human rights and freedoms. The Government have always welcomed the statements, particularly from President Medvedev, arguing that Russia is moving towards greater acceptance of the rule of law and he is seeking to demonstrate greater respect for liberties in his country. It is important that the Russian authorities realise that we cannot make a judgment on the basis of words alone and that we look at their actions in judging whether those welcome expressions of intent are translated into practical action.

Given the horrific events that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has just described, does the Minister agree that Russia is rapidly becoming a rogue state? What can our Government do proactively to help reformers and democrats in Russia properly?

We can help by speaking out about our concerns, both in public and candidly in private to Russian leaders and officials. We can do so both bilaterally and through multilateral organisations, especially the European Union, and we welcome the statement that Baroness Ashton published last November on this matter. We can also continue to help by supporting NGOs that focus on the situation in Russia, be they Russian or international. However, I ask my hon. Friend to accept that on a number of important issues at the United Nations Security Council it has been possible to achieve a measure of constructive agreement with Russia. We would welcome things such as its agreement to tougher sanctions against Iran—that was agreed last year. We very much welcomed the successor to the START—strategic arms reduction treaty—agreement that was negotiated between the Governments of Russia and the United States. We want to see more of that kind of development in the world.