[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I am pleased to have secured the debate, which will focus on the sadly topical issue of the safety of journalists abroad. The debate is timely, as a meeting is to take place tomorrow in Paris at which the UNESCO international programme for the development of communication will consider the report, “The Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity”. The UK will be represented by Professor Ivor Gaber.
Recent news has drawn much international attention to these issues. On 22 February, in the Syrian city of Homs, the American-born veteran war reporter Marie Colvin died, along with French photographer Remi Ochlik, when a shell hit the building in which she was sheltering. The 56-year-old had been a reporter for The Sunday Times since 1985 and had covered conflicts from Chechnya to the Arab spring. She won glowing posthumous accolades. The Foreign Secretary said:
“For years she shone a light on stories that others could not and placed herself in the most dangerous environments to do so.... She was utterly dedicated to her work, admired by all of us who encountered her, and respected and revered by her peers”.
The priest at her funeral said, simply, that she was
“a voice to the voiceless.”
Sometimes, reporters such as Marie Colvin play a greater role than that of providing a voice—Peter Oborne, in The Daily Telegraph, wrote:
“At times, Colvin herself intervened in history, as she did in 1999 in East Timor when she helped save the lives of 1,500 refugees encircled by Indonesian troops in a United Nations compound. The situation was so dangerous that the UN commander wanted to evacuate, leaving the refugees to their fate. But Colvin insisted on staying behind, thus shaming the UN commander into staying - and averting a potential massacre.”
Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik are not the only journalists and media workers to have lost their lives in the course of their duties since the start of this year. Each year the International News Safety Institute publishes its “Killing the Messenger” report. These reports show, on average, two deaths among people working in news media every week—last year, for example, the INSI reported 124 deaths. Already in 2012, there have been 23 deaths, eight of them in Syria. Far more have been injured or have been the victims of abduction, hostage taking, harassment and intimidation.
Because of the threats that they face, many journalists have had to resort to self-censorship in an effort to protect themselves, rather than lose their lives. Not all those deaths, injuries and threats to lives, freedom or jobs have been to journalists and others working in war zones. Some 60% of the loss of life in 2011 occurred away from conflict zones, in areas where investigations were underway into organised crime, corruption or other illegal activities.
A press freedom violation can be an assassin’s bullet aimed to kill an investigative journalist and to intimidate and silence his colleagues. It can be the knock on the door from the police, bringing in a reporter to question her on her sources, or put her in jail with or without a proper trial. It can be a restrictive media law, which puts the power over editorial content into the hands of censors and press courts.
Journalists and media staff have been killed in the line of duty. Often they are local journalists working their own patch who died because someone did not like what they wrote or said, or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Every job has its risks, and journalists, whose job it is to bring into the open what someone wants hidden, are at greater risk than most, but the risks today are unacceptably high. In some parts of the world, harassment, threats and worse have become an unavoidable part of the job. In war or civil conflict, the risks often escalate: for example, the invasion of Iraq triggered the deaths of 350 journalists. Worldwide, more than 1,000 have died in the last 10 years, but sadly, unless the life is that of a well known western correspondent, the world barely notices.
Organisations seeking to ensure improved security for journalists deserve our support and thanks. I have already mentioned INSI, which, since 2004, has provided basic safety training free of charge to more than 2,000 news media personnel in 23 countries. Other such organisations include Reporters Sans Frontières, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Freedom of Expression eXchange and the Inter American Press Association. Our own National Union of Journalists, which has 38,000 members, is the voice for journalism and for journalists across the UK and Ireland and is affiliated to the International Federation of Journalists, which is the world’s largest organisation of journalists, with around 600,000 members in more than 100 countries.
Both the NUJ and the IFJ monitor press freedom violations and campaign for greater safety for journalists who are at the greatest risk and have the least protection. They have established support for journalists and media staff in conflict areas through rapid safety training, and ensured that leading media organisations, such as the BBC, Reuters, CNN and major newspaper groups, put health and safety in the mainstream of international media development strategies, take responsibility for the safety of journalists and provide for their safety training.
Despite that work, the continuing high level of media deaths cries out for more action by international institutions, such as the United Nations, to force Governments to pay more attention to the safety crisis affecting journalists and media workers. More has to be done to improve safety and to combat impunity. Impunity occurs when the political will to back investigations into the killing of journalists is absent; when legal frameworks are inadequate; when judges are weak or corrupt; when the police or investigating authorities are incompetent; when meagre resources are assigned to those responsible for providing security and enforcing the law; and when official negligence and corruption are rife. Combating impunity is a vital element of freedom and security. If there is little fear of the case ever being investigated, let alone the perpetrator being identified and brought to trial, there is no deterrent against people threatening, harming or killing journalists. Recent reports from IFEX show that in nine out of 10 cases of journalists being killed while performing their professional duties, the perpetrators of the crimes are never prosecuted. Other research shows that more than two thirds of the people responsible are not even identified because of the failure to carry out sufficiently thorough investigations. In effect, in many countries it is almost risk-free to kill a journalist—murder has become the easiest, and perhaps the cheapest and most effective way of silencing troublesome journalists.
The record of Governments in far too many states in tackling impunity is appalling. I have heard reports of intimidation of staff and families of the BBC’s Persian service. At one end of the spectrum, there are countries such as Gambia where journalists have been targeted, oppressed and jailed. In response to international campaigns in support of Gambian journalists, Yahya Jammeh, the President of the Gambia, declared:
“I will kill anybody caught tarnishing the image of my government. I will kill you and nothing will come of it.”
Of the situation in Syria, the French journalist Jean-Pierre Perrin said:
“The Syrian army issued orders to kill any journalists that set foot on Syrian soil.”
Given the army’s relevance in the death of Marie Colvin, what information does the Minister have on that claim? Since November 2009, the International Federation of Journalists has been campaigning to force the Aquino administration in the Philippines to investigate fully the killing of 21 journalists and media workers in what has become known as the Ampatuan massacre. Some progress has been made, but not enough. For many years in Somalia, which is one of the most dangerous African countries for journalists, no crime committed against a journalist has been investigated and so no one has been convicted, and now it appears that the current Transitional Federal Government have been persecuting journalists, their union and media organisations. I am pleased that our Foreign Secretary raised the safety of journalists with President Sheikh Sharif during his visit to Mogadishu in February, and that he has pressed for an independent inquiry into the death of Hassan Osman Abdi.
What about the leading democracies? The United States has consistently refused to carry out credible and independent investigations of the killing of journalists, including the killing of ITN’s Terry Lloyd near Basra in March 2003, and the killing of Spanish cameraman Jose Couso and others when US forces fired on Baghdad’s Palestine hotel in April 2003. The IFJ has catalogued 16 other cases of journalists who have died since March 2003 at the hands of US soldiers in Iraq without a proper investigation being carried out. When the world’s leading democracy refuses to prosecute those who are responsible for serious violations, what chance do we have when we confront the likes of President Jammeh of the Gambia? But what of our own Government?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Before he moves on and talks about our own Government, I want to put on record a tribute to Martin O’Hagan, the only journalist specifically targeted and assassinated during all the troubles in Northern Ireland. He was murdered in September 2001 and sadly no one has ever been convicted of his murder. It is important that everything possible is done to bring to justice the people who carry out attacks on journalists here, and I wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his endeavours to raise this issue.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for highlighting that case. He is absolutely right to say that our own Government must go out of their way to ensure that all cases of our own journalists being killed, whether at home or abroad, are thoroughly investigated. In some respects, however, I do not believe that our own Government have a perfectly clean record on this issue.
Portuguese Timor, as East Timor was then called, became the focus of Indonesian destabilisation in 1974. A civil war from August 1975 to September 1975 killed more than 1,000 people, and instability and unrest continued afterwards. Into that situation flew two British citizens, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, who were working for the late Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine network in Australia. They headed for the East Timorese border town of Balibo, where on 13 October 1975 they met three other journalists who were working for the rival Channel Seven network in Australia. Three days later, all five were dead. Their deaths form the basis of an excellent new film, simply called “Balibo”. As I said in a previous Westminster Hall debate:
“When Britons die abroad, we anticipate our Government doing all they can to help the relatives. We expect the Government to seek as much information as possible and to share it with the relatives. Sadly, in this case, the opposite happened. From 1975 until 1995, there was almost complete inaction. The Government were involved in a disgraceful cover-up.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 97WH.]
Our Government knew about the planned invasion and our ambassador, Mr Ford, advised the Indonesians to keep it covert; consequently no warning was given to the journalists. After their killings, Mr Ford suggested that
“we should ourselves avoid representations to the Indonesians about them”,
to which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office replied, “We agree”.
Eventually it was left to a coroner in New South Wales in Australia to conduct an inquest into the death of Brian Peters, one of the two British journalists who had been killed. Her report in November 2007 said that all five journalists had been “deliberately killed” and she named those responsible. She said that Brian Peters had died
“from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by… Indonesian Special Forces”,
including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah. She also said that Brian Peters was killed
“on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo.”
The Australian coroner concluded that an international conflict was under way at the time, so the killing of the journalists was a war crime. There are two named Indonesians, both still alive, who are credibly accused of war crimes against two British citizens, but still, five years after the inquest and 37 years after the murders, all our Government are doing is waiting to see whether the Australian federal police will instigate war crimes proceedings. In my view, that is not an adequate response. Our Government should be taking their own action.
If individual Governments are failing, what about the various regional bodies? Sadly, those who look to those bodies for help are often disappointed because they are apparently spineless. Journalists under fire in Asia, the middle east and Africa expect little, if any, support from the Association of South East Asian Nations, the Arab League or the African Union. The African Union, for example, has its headquarters in Ethiopia, which is a known abuser of press freedom, and its human rights body is in, of all places, Gambia, which is a known jailer of journalists.
If more action is to be taken, we have to look to wider international bodies. UNESCO is the sole UN specialist agency with a mandate to defend and promote freedom of expression and its corollary, press freedom, as well as to combat impunity. It has various tools and instruments at its disposal, including international humanitarian laws, universal human rights laws, covenants, declarations and resolutions. They range from UNESCO’s resolution 29, which condemns violence against journalists and obliges states to prevent, investigate and punish crimes against journalists, to the establishment of the Guillermo Cano world press freedom prize, as well as the annual world press freedom day, which is on May 3 each year. All those instruments make it clear that journalists, including embedded journalists, are civilians and must be protected as such. In addition, the Geneva conventions define the murder or ill-treatment of journalists in times of war or major civil unrest as a war crime. Journalists have the same rights as civilians in armed conflicts, whether those conflicts are between nations or situations of widespread civil conflict.
Those instruments are meant to compel Governments to abide by international laws and standards, but the sad reality today is that not many journalists can rely on international institutions to defend their rights when they disappear, are jailed or are murdered. A few years ago, journalists were full of hope when the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1738, which reasserted that journalists and media professionals engaged in areas of armed conflict
“shall be respected and protected”.
Unfortunately, that hope is getting thinner by the day, as UN bureaucracies are often reluctant to confront certain Governments.
Some countries do not even provide information they are requested to give voluntarily. Since 2008, the council of the international programme for the development of communication has encouraged member states to submit information, on a voluntary basis, about actions they have taken to prevent impunity and about the status of investigations conducted into each of the killings of journalists condemned by UNESCO. Such reports are intended to be included in a public report submitted by the IPDC to UNESCO. The 2010 IPDC report, which dealt with crimes committed in 2006 and 2007, showed that only 18 of the relevant 29 countries provided detailed information on judicial follow-up into cases of the killing of journalists in their country. The 2012 IPDC report, which dealt with crimes committed in 2008 and 2009, showed an even worse response rate, with just nine of the relevant 27 countries submitting responses.
Tomorrow, at the IPDC meeting being held at UNESCO, the latest IPDC report will be discussed, as well as a final draft of the “UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity”. That plan is based on a consultation involving all relevant UN agencies, following, I am pleased to say, an initiative led by the UK at a previous IPDC meeting. The aim of the plan is to work
“toward the creation of a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers in both conflict and non-conflict situations, with a view to strengthening peace, democracy and development worldwide.”
The plan includes strengthening UN mechanisms; doing much more to shine the spotlight on countries that appear to be dragging their feet in the protection of journalists; raising awareness; assisting member states to develop their own legislation and mechanisms for protecting journalists; improving collaboration with relevant agencies; and developing further safety initiatives, which might include the creation of so-called media corridors in conflict zones. I am pleased that it was a UK-inspired initiative that led to the development of the plan.
I welcome the statement given in response to a parliamentary question on 22 February 2012, by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), that the Government “fully supports” UN initiatives to improve the safety of journalists, but I believe that our Government can go further. For example, ours is one of the few developed countries that does not contribute financially to the IPDC’s work. We are a member of its council, but we do not contribute to it. We should do so, especially as much of its funding is used to train journalists in how best to protect themselves from physical attack. We should also consider how we can help other organisations that do similar work. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that. Perhaps he will also explain why our Government does not contribute to world press freedom day.
Our Government can go further in what they press UNESCO to do. Currently, member states are only “encouraged” to supply information on work to combat impunity and on investigations into the deaths of journalists. We should surely press for such reports to be more detailed and mandatory. Reports should also be published sooner and in full—the report on killings in 2010-11 is not due for publication until 2014. The IPDC should be encouraged to speed up the process. Such actions, together with the widest publication of reports—or of failure to report—will help to put teeth into UN Security Council resolution 1738.
Furthermore, we must press UNESCO to make it absolutely clear that the promotion of safety and the ending of impunity have to apply in non-conflict areas as well as in war zones. “Conflict” should be viewed in its broadest interpretation. States where there is impunity should have to face a persistent international publicity campaign, not once a year but every time they acquiesce in, sanction, or turn a blind eye to the murder of a journalist. They should be made responsible for their negligence and, in many cases, their complicity. Again, I look forward to the Minister’s response to that point. We need to be seen to take these matters seriously, so will the Minister consider one other suggestion: that annually the UK voluntarily releases and distributes full details of its representations and actions relating to the rights and lives of threatened journalists?
Today hundreds of journalists are in jail, and scores are killed each year. Journalists working in dangerous conditions feel isolated and abandoned by the very international institutions created to protect their rights. I want our Government to speak out forcefully for press freedom and push back against member states that seek to block international institutions from fulfilling their mandate and enforcing international laws.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) on securing a debate on an issue that is not only important but becoming increasingly so because the problem seems to be intensifying.
When I found out about the debate I was, by coincidence, reading a collection of essays by Vaclav Havel, one of the 20th century’s greatest dissidents and human rights champions. He said:
“Today, in the era of mass media, it is often true that if a deed lacks adequate coverage, particularly on television, it might just as well have remained undone.”
That, of course, is what repressive autocratic regimes rely on, and it is why we need good journalists. We are grateful to them for going beyond the call of duty and normal professional competence to run risks that most of us certainly would not. On that, Havel said:
“Humanity’s thanks belong to all those courageous reporters who voluntarily risk their lives wherever something evil is happening, in order to arouse the conscience of the world.”
I am sure that we can all think of legion examples over our adult lifetimes, and perhaps even from our childhoods, of seeing things on the television that have made us realise how small the world is and how important it is to take action.
I had some conversations with a war correspondent for one of the major British newspapers, and I want to report what he said:
“Despite the recent deaths and injuries to journalists in Syria it is essential that there is independent reporting from there. Otherwise all we are getting are the views of the regime and the opposition.”
That attitude is admirable, because a small number of people run risks for the benefit of a large number. The correspondent also said that
“it is proving to be very difficult to work inside Syria. The sheer ferocity of the regime attacks means that you are vulnerable and unlike Libya for example, where the rebels held half the country, there is nowhere to run to. Another difference between these two conflicts is that the journalists captured by the Gaddafi regime were all eventually freed”.
It does not look as though that is the case in Syria.
This debate raises issues about the role and responsibilities of media organisations and about Governments. British media organisations are obviously careful about where they send their staff, but journalists are concerned about how freelancers are treated—not that they are treated as somehow expendable, but that less responsibility is felt towards them. That is clearly not right when media organisations and the rest of us take freelancers’ stories and pictures. Freelancers are obviously on temporary contracts and are often cash-strapped, and few of them have hostile environment training or are insured. They are under not exactly more pressure but more temptation to run risks that others might not, and I have been told that that might be especially so with tabloids and news organisations that do not maintain international offices in different parts of the globe. Media organisations have responsibilities, and they need to consider how they treat everyone whom they pay to get news for their outlets.
Another thing that came from the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Bath is that the high and growing number of deaths is mainly made up of people working in their own countries. Last year, 106 people died reporting overseas, but people who are reporting in conflict situations or under violent and autocratic regimes are not just caught in the crossfire, but targeted and attacked for what they are writing and filming, by their regimes, terrorist organisations and criminal gangs. We need to consider that issue carefully.
The IFJ research also revealed that the great majority of deaths have occurred in peacetime, which tells us that journalists die not only in war situations but when reporting from countries that do not respect human rights and where the press is not free, as it is in this country. That is a major part of the risks that they face.
The right hon. Member for Bath spoke about the problem of impunity—a serious problem in Russia. The whole world knows of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, but it is probably not as well known that the Russian Union of Journalists has found that between 1993 and 2009, 300 journalists died or disappeared. The National Union of Journalists is running a campaign focusing in particular on the situation faced by women journalists. When women journalists are in risky situations, they are threatened not just with violence but with sexual abuse and attack, and particular care must be taken. The NUJ believes that women are put into even riskier situations, which is extraordinary.
The international status of journalists under the Geneva convention is extremely important, as is the role of the United Nations and UNESCO’s potential to protect journalists in countries where they are being threatened and to ensure that their rights are enforced. I do not want to delay hon. Members for long, but I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what he is doing to ensure that international forums use all available levers to increase the safety of journalists.
I join others in thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster) for securing this debate and in paying tribute to journalists around the world for the work that they do to bring important subjects to our attention. One category that might have been overlooked is that of journalists embedded with military units in active conflict zones. Although they experience the greatest protection that the Army or Ministry of Defence can offer, they still willingly and in some cases cheerfully put themselves in considerable danger to bring us the full reality of the circumstances in which our armed forces operate. We should recognise that as frequently as we can.
I will touch on two subjects that are slightly distinct from the theme on which my right hon. Friend based his speech. The first is the impact of the danger that journalists face daily on their families at home. Secondly—to do something unusual that I hope the Minister will approve of—I want to offer a tribute to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for how it has handled an incident that is close to my heart.
On 22 February, Gareth Montgomery-Johnson—a constituent of mine from a small village called Llansteffan in Carmarthenshire—and his colleague Nicholas Davies-Jones from nearby Llanelli were arrested by the Misrata brigade of the Libyan militia. They were working for Iranian television at the time, and they were held on allegations of spying. As soon as it occurred, the family made contact with me, as the Member of Parliament for one of the journalists involved, and with the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), who represents another member of the family. The families, as one would expect, were expressing considerable fear and uncertainty about the prospects and fate of their sons, when several things happened simultaneously. The Foreign Office, spurred into life, made immediate contact with the families and the Members of Parliament contacted on their behalf. Officials in Libya also made instant contact with the two journalists, thus ensuring that they were held in as reasonable conditions as could be expected in the circumstances and that they had food, water, any necessary medical provisions and access, if at all possible, to a telephone to make even the briefest of calls back home. I particularly want to mention Mar Menendez at the Foreign Office in London for co-ordinating that process and ensuring, whatever the time of day or night, that we MPs and the family members knew what was going on as far as that was possible in those unclear circumstances.
Finally, the Minister with responsibility for the middle east and north Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), sent me an unsolicited text at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night simply to alert me that the two journalists had been transferred from the militia to the Libyan authorities, that any charges or potential charges of spying were being dropped and that they would return to the UK as soon as possible—a process that has now been successfully completed.
I use this opportunity to put that on the record, forgetting any party or political differences, to pay tribute to those involved for reminding us that when the chips were down—as they certainly were over the days and weeks that my constituent was being held against his will—the system worked well. Having spoken to Gareth Montgomery-Johnson’s mother and father, I know that they too are particularly grateful for the help, support and guidance that they got from the Home Office. I thought it would be remiss of me not to record that formally.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) on securing the debate and on his excellent opening speech, which set the discussion in context. I am secretary of the all-party parliamentary group for the National Union of Journalists, of which he is also a member. We have been addressing the subject for numerous years and have had a series of ministerial meetings, including with the Secretary of State for Defence some years ago about embedded journalists and what mechanisms could be put in place. I concur with the statement about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. When individuals have been detained or gone missing—a number of journalists have disappeared—the FCO has been nothing but superb in the support that it has given to families and the representations that it has made.
We thought that our representations years ago were an opportunity for us to tackle the issue of impunity. Various international instruments were in place, and we thought that the number of journalists dying and disappearing would decline, but that has not occurred. It is shocking. I went through last year’s list. I will not read the names into the record, as it would take too long. Most names are probably not even notable; often, they were simply journalists working on the ground at local level. The list ranges around the world and includes support workers as well as journalists and TV production crew.
I will read out the figures for the past five years. I cannot remember when we last debated the issue, but we certainly debated it in 2006. In 2006, we were angry and concerned because 155 journalists and staff were killed. Then, in 2007, the number rose to 172. It was 85 in 2008, 139 in 2009, 94 in 2010 and 106 in 2011. The right hon. Gentleman is correct: the number has grown to 120-odd in the updated figures and, therefore, things are not improving. Records prepared by the NUJ, working with the International Federation of Journalists, confirm that more than 1,000 journalists and support staff have been killed over the past 10 years. Only one in eight of the killers is ever prosecuted, and two thirds are not even identified.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, we can identify individual regimes. The Gambian regime under Jammeh has been a nightmare, and we have raised the issue time and again. Jammeh will brook no opposition or democratic debate, and any journalist who reports on corruption in the regime is risking their life. Many journalists have left the country, and this country has given many of them refugee status.
Given that we are taking on such regimes, it is embarrassing that we have not been able to secure a proper inquiry into the deaths in Iraq of Terry Lloyd and the person working alongside him. When democratic countries do not pull their weight, it is difficult to enforce proper practices in other countries.
I share the concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) raised about women. On international women’s day, the NUJ, via the IFJ, once again raised the issue of the extreme violence against women. The IFJ and NUJ have consistently tried to expose and denounce individual cases. As Mindy Ryan, the chair of the NUJ’s equality council and the IFJ’s gender council, said:
“The climate of impunity for crimes against female journalists constitutes a serious threat to the most fundamental of free expression rights. Moreover, there is an on-going concern over the fact that the authorities tend to deny that these women have been killed because of their work as journalists. Instead, they tend to indicate robbery or ‘personal issues’ as motives of the media killings.”
Unless we can demonstrate that women are being raped, abused and murdered as a result of their professional work, what happens to them suddenly becomes just an ordinary crime, and countries and regimes can act with impunity. One of the worst examples involved the journalists who were exposing the sexual abuse and assaults taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 8,000 cases of sexual violence were perpetrated in a single year. Women journalists, in particular, came under attack and faced threats as a result of the work they did to expose those things.
As the right hon. Member for Bath said in opening the debate, everything comes back to the question whether we can get UNESCO and other international organisations to ensure that there are reports on investigations into crimes against journalists. The investigations that do take place are extremely limited, and the reports on them are often not published. Indeed, even if they are, there is no follow-through against the regime or the country involved—we do not seem able even to expose them effectively.
The Government could take a lead on the issue. That is not a party political point, and Members across parties have urged such action in debates in the past. The UK Government need to be the Government who are seen to stand up for journalists around the world. Where they are a member of an international body that has a role in protecting journalists against such crimes, they should not allow it to meet without our raising these issues and ensuring that we gear up for action.
In addition, we need to put the issue on the agenda in some of our bilateral relationships. For example, the next time the Government meet Putin, we have to put this issue back on the agenda. Russia has been one of the worst places for journalists, who are hounded simply for revealing some of the corruption in that country. We cannot try to develop harmonious relationships with countries while turning a blind eye to the atrocities that are perpetrated against journalists just because they are doing their job.
We need to think in more detail about the mechanisms that can be used not only to expose countries, but to ensure that action is taken against them. We should seek to isolate those countries and regimes that are notorious for assaulting and murdering journalists simply for undertaking their jobs.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Philippines, which is a stark example of what we are talking about. We virtually know who the killers are. We know how journalists have been murdered and what butchery has taken place, but no action is taken. When defendants are brought to court, they are not the real defendants, and the people who motivated or employed the killers are never prosecuted. We should expose such rogue regimes for their attacks on journalists, and the international family should isolate them.
Somalia has also been mentioned, and I pay tribute to the Foreign Office for the work it has done to ensure that we secure the best protection we can for journalists. One issue there, however, is that the secretary of the National Union of Somali Journalists was murdered. We are playing an increasing role in providing assistance to Somalia, and we are developing the country and investing in it to ensure that we bring peace and security to the Somali people. Whatever governmental systems are established, however, we need to embed in Somali culture the critical role that journalists play both in developing democracy and as one of its foundations. We need to embed in the Somali culture and system of government a respect for journalists, as well as protections for freedom of speech, freedom of journalism and democratic expression.
I want our Government to stand up on this issue. There is not a lack of political will, but we need to tell the rest of the world, “If no one else will, we are going be the country that protects journalists and puts this issue on the agenda whenever we can. We are going to be the country that makes sure that international bodies perform the roles set out in their statutes.” There are various protections for journalists in statute; the Geneva convention has been mentioned, and we have various UNESCO and UN directives. All the law is there, but it needs implementing. Our role is to shame international organisations into working alongside us to ensure that such statutes are implemented.
In addition, we must call out those regimes that murder and butcher journalists simply for reporting the truth. In that way, we can stand as a beacon of light on the issue and help to reduce the catalogue of death and murder that has gone on year after year. We were here five years ago, and I do not want to be here in another five years, after another 500 journalists have been killed. I do not want to see any more Marie Colvins, and I do not want to see any more disappearances.
I join other Members in congratulating the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) on securing the debate and on highlighting some serious examples of the danger that journalists continue to face while working overseas.
We are all familiar with high-profile cases such as the recent tragic death in Syria of Marie Colvin, an internationally renowned foreign correspondent who was rightly feted for her bravery and for her determination to carry on and get the story, even though she faced great personal danger. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said, we do not hear as much about the local journalists who are investigating corruption or reporting on conflicts, and who also run a serious risk of persecution, injury or death, but who do not have the benefit of a Government overseas who can raise concerns and provide consular support.
Reporters Without Borders has said that local journalists pay the highest price every year to guarantee our right to be informed about wars, corruption and the destruction of the environment. Let me cite one example. I have recently returned from a visit as part of a delegation to Colombia. We looked at the human rights situation there and met a great number of human rights activists, journalists and campaigners for press freedom and civil freedoms. The Minister has also just returned from Colombia, although I gather that his trip was mainly to discuss trade issues. However, he will, of course, be very much aware of the human rights situation and the risk to journalists, and perhaps he will tell us whether he had an opportunity to discuss those issues.
The right hon. Member for Bath talked about impunity, and the crux of the matter is that if we do not ensure that those who are guilty of crimes against journalists are brought to justice, whatever those crimes are, there will be no deterrent to those who want to threaten or terrorise them, or otherwise to prevent the development of a free press, or stop journalists working. A free press is one of the most essential elements of a democracy, and one of the most important tools for promoting it, and opposing oppression. It must be protected, which includes bringing people to justice.
These days, the issue is not just press and broadcast journalism, which we might describe as mainstream journalism. The Arab spring, in particular, has highlighted the role of so-called citizen journalists. People now blog, tweet and post pictures taken on their camera phones, or video footage that they have taken in the middle of unrest. Sometimes that is the only voice that we hear about what is really going on. Those people give a voice to protesters and ordinary citizens who would otherwise be voiceless. It is far more difficult to bring those people, who are sometimes known as netizens, or citizen journalists, under the formal umbrellas of protection. They will not be trade union members or work for companies that can protect them and push their case. However, there is not, these days, a clear dividing line between one form of journalism and another.
Even in this country, we have bloggers who are now regarded as mainstream journalists. They can be seen on “Newsnight”, but the bulk of their work is blogging from the street. In some countries where the mainstream media are banned, or subject to serious repression, the voices of those citizen journalists are the only ones that we hear. I would be interested to know what efforts have been made to bring those informal journalists under the umbrella of protection. There is little mention of that in the UNESCO draft action plan.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about the need to build a strong press in the countries concerned. The stronger the press, the safer and better protected the journalists are, because other people working in the field will be able to highlight abuses. I have been involved with some work being done on that front by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Quite often in meetings with members of delegations from abroad, or at overseas conferences, it is possible to talk to politicians about their work as politicians, but rarely is there an opportunity to talk to journalists. The politicians often do not have the support of a free, robust and well equipped and resourced press. That makes it difficult for them to do their work of democratic scrutiny. There is considerable scope for the UK Government, whether through the foundation or otherwise, to do more to promote strong and independent media in such countries.
Today’s debate is timely, as UNESCO is presenting its draft action plan this week. UNESCO notes that there has been little improvement in the safety of journalists in the past few years. Figures for casualties tend to vary quite dramatically from year to year, depending on circumstances, so there was a fall in the number of deaths in 2007 and 2008, because the situation in Iraq improved, but there was a significant rise in 2009 because of the one-off horrific incident of the deaths of 30 journalists in the Philippines on 23 November. There are some differences between the figures cited by the UN, those reported by Reporters Without Borders and those of the International Federation of Journalists, but all the sets of figures make it clear that across the globe journalists are still coming under attack and being censored, kidnapped, threatened, arrested, jailed, forced to flee or even killed.
The draft action plan emphasises the need to extend UNESCO’s work, such as in assisting countries to develop laws and mechanisms that support, rather than suppress, freedom of expression and information, and to implement the rules and principles set out in UNESCO’s 1997 general conference resolution on violence against journalists. The Minister may well say that that the draft action plan stems from a meeting that was called following a UK initiative last year, and I would be interested to know more about the role that the UK played in drawing up the draft plan, and what role it envisages in taking it forward. When will the five aims of the plan be implemented and what resources will be devoted to that?
Recently, the Government have taken considerable interest in Somalia, with the conference in London, which I welcomed. I have met journalists from Somaliland, and even there, where it is relatively peaceful, there have been problems with the jailing of journalists. Are there countries where the Minister feels the UK could play a particular role—perhaps on a pilot scheme or project basis—and do imaginative and innovative things to support the development of a free press, as well as protect those who promote it?
Thank you, Mrs Main, for giving me the opportunity to conclude this fairly brief but important debate. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who has a long record in his 20 years in the House of championing the safety of journalists. It is to his credit and to the benefit of the House that we have the opportunity to discuss it this afternoon. I thank other hon. Members who have taken the opportunity to take part in the deliberations. Of course, the main business of the House today has been the Budget statement in the main Chamber, but there are many other important things happening in the world and the one that we are debating warrants our attention.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for her speech and for highlighting the threat faced by women journalists, which may sometimes be greater than that faced by males. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for his praise both for the Foreign Office—such praise does not always flow as freely during debates as we might wish—and for the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). I shall pass the expression of gratitude on to him.
I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for his speech today, and for the consistent and manifestly sincere interest he takes in the subject, and to the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for her contribution. To answer her question, I was in Colombia on Wednesday and Thursday last week, and although there were considerable discussions about trade and commercial opportunities and about political and diplomatic relations between Colombia and Britain, there was also a focus in my programme on human rights issues in the broadest sense, including threats to journalists and trade unionists, and the action that the Colombian Government and others were taking to deal with those threats. It was a broad-ranging visit, which concentrated very much on that issue.
I should say at the outset that the Government are deeply concerned about the safety of journalists; we strongly condemn their harassment and intimidation, and of course the assassinations that take place in some awful cases. I am full of admiration, as are others who have spoken in the debate, for those who bring us news from around the world, many of whom take enormous risks and who occasionally pay a great price to provide that service. I think we are all sometimes inclined to take it for granted that we can switch on the television or radio or read a newspaper and feel that we have been transported to an area of great hazard and danger and given an instant understanding of the political situation and threat to life there. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the person who brings that news and information to us is in that environment, as are the cameraman and other support staff. At great risk to themselves they inform us, and without their doing so we would not be informed.
The efforts of such people enable voices that would otherwise go unheard and events that would otherwise go unseen to reach audiences not just in the United Kingdom, but around the world. Although there are distinguished journalists of all nationalities, British journalists and news organisations play a leading role in informing not just British audiences but global ones about global events. The deaths of Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik and Rami al-Sayyed while reporting with great bravery from Homs are a terrible reminder of the risks that journalists take to report the truth. Every Member who has contributed to this debate has rightly dwelt on their deaths and paid tribute to their work.
This Government attach great importance to freedom of the media, which with the freedom to express one’s views is fundamental to a strong democracy. A free press allows space for challenge and innovation, supports transparency and deters corruption. It exposes human rights violations and ensures that people can exchange ideas. All citizens must be allowed to discuss and debate issues, challenge their Governments and make informed decisions.
Sadly, according to studies by both Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit, we are witnessing a decline in media freedoms around the world. That is affecting both print media, which in an increasing number of countries are coming under state control or heavy state influence, and the internet, where there has been an increase in blocking and censorship. Many Governments do not wish to be accountable to their people and want to remove all checks on their power.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath has set out comprehensively, that means that in many parts of the world the work of journalists, bloggers and others is obstructed. They are harassed, monitored, detained and, on occasion, subjected to violence. Some have paid the highest price—we have discussed some such cases today. According to the latest figures from Reporters Without Borders, 11 journalists have been killed so far this year in connection with their work. In 2011, 66 journalists were killed and 71 were kidnapped, while 199 bloggers and netizens were arrested and 62 physically attacked. Although such occurrences may not be the norm, they are not quite the exception either. For many years—the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to this—journalists have faced problems that, while they may or may not be isolated incidents, add up to a consistent pattern of threats to them.
It is vital that the international community continues to speak out in support of press freedom and the protection of journalists. The UK is supportive of the work of UNESCO and looks forward to a positive outcome from its meeting in Paris on the safety of journalists. We fully support the aim to strengthen the mandate and working methods of UNESCO and other United Nations bodies to tackle violence against journalists and the high levels of impunity. We welcome initiatives that encourage UN agencies and special rapporteurs to work closer together and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath has proposed, we are already pressing UNESCO to be more transparent and speed up the publication of its information on the killing of journalists. We also support the proposals to raise greater awareness of the issue and to encourage states to fulfil their commitments on media freedoms. We believe that concerted, co-ordinated action is vital. Later, I will talk about countries that are of particular concern to us—another issue raised by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington—but severe abuses take place in many countries.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bath is right to say that the UK is not currently funding the work of the international programme for the development of communication. I do not wish to sound like I am passing the ball within Government, but that decision was taken by the Department for International Development, although the Government may revisit it in due course. I assure my right hon. Friend that we are providing, and will continue to provide, assistance to journalists working in difficult environments. We are doing so via support for specific projects, such as an ongoing one in Mexico with Article 19 as part of our human rights and democracy programme fund, and other mechanisms, such as the Lifeline fund for embattled non-governmental organisations, which provides emergency assistance to journalists working in support of human rights.
In times of armed conflict, states bear the primary responsibility to respect, protect and meet the needs of civilians. We encourage all states to respect the Geneva conventions affirming that journalists are civilians under international humanitarian law. We fully support UN Security Council resolution 1738, passed in 2006, which makes it clear that deliberate attacks on journalists, media professionals and associated personnel who are reporting on armed conflicts and are not directly participating in hostilities are unacceptable.
At the 31st international conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva in December 2011, we made three further pledges on the protection of journalists, namely: integrating specific components on the protection of journalists into the training of our armed forces; providing journalists embedded with our armed forces with security training; and ensuring that national criminal law makes it possible to prosecute those who commit serious violations against journalists. We will report back on our progress to the 32nd international conference in 2015.
As highlighted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual human rights reports, our missions around the world continue to raise freedom of expression issues in countries of concern. That will be reflected in the latest human rights report, to be published in a few weeks’ time. We consistently raise individual cases of attacks against journalists and call for prompt and full investigations into them. We stated publicly our concerns about the treatment of foreign journalists in China when, in February 2011, several were physically intimidated or detained without explanation. In Azerbaijan, support from the UK and others resulted in the release and pardon of blogger Mr Fatullayev on 26 May. In July 2011, we condemned attacks in Belarus, where more than a dozen journalists were detained, beaten and their equipment broken during peaceful protests.
We also frequently raise our significant concerns about the fate of journalists in Iran. A 2011 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists showed that, once again, Iran has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world. The arrest of six journalists in September and October who were accused of working for the BBC and of espionage was particularly troubling. All have now been released, but too many others remain in prison.
My right hon. Friend talked about events in East Timor and Syria. I share the concerns about the two British journalists, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, and the other journalists killed in East Timor in 1975. The UK Government firmly believe that those responsible for their deaths should be held to account. Following publication of the Australian coroner’s report, the authorities there took the decision to review the evidence and consider the conclusions of previous investigations into the case. For legal and investigative reasons, they are unable to provide specific details of their work, which is ongoing. I fully appreciate the frustrations with the pace of progress, but the FCO continues to act as an intermediary between the British families involved and the Australian authorities, and will do so for as long as necessary.
I know that the Minister has to read what his brief says, but will he tell us whether he seriously believes it is acceptable for five years to elapse since the conclusion of the coroner’s work before the Government decide whether they are going to bring about a war crimes proceeding on behalf of two of their citizens who were murdered in East Timor by the Indonesians?
I appreciate the passion with which my right hon. Friend brings us again to that case. Let me undertake to go away and look at the matter in greater detail, because I have not only responsibility for human rights policy in the generality, but geographic responsibility for that part of the world. I give a personal undertaking to him that I will consider what more can be done to assist the families of the journalists concerned. There are practical constraints on the British Government, often bigger than the public or even sometimes Members of Parliament fully appreciate, and obviously we are not operating within our own jurisdiction. Nevertheless, we will do what we can. I will let my right hon. Friend know what more, if anything, we can do in that case.
The other country I wanted to mention before I concluded is Syria, where terrible atrocities continue to be committed. The UK sees it as vital that evidence of those atrocities is systematically gathered, documented and securely stored. What form of accountability or justice processes should take will be for the Syrian people to decide. That will be an essential means of reconciling communities in Syria following the trauma that is being inflicted on them both by the regime and, in some cases, by those on the ground who oppose the regime. We want to make sure that comprehensive justice is done in Syria, which requires that information is gathered according to an international evidential standard suitable for local and international courts.
Let me make our central purpose clear: all those who commit human rights violations or abuses in Syria should and must be held accountable for their actions. We commend the work being done by local organisations, the UN independent commission of inquiry on Syria, Amnesty International and others to document what is happening in Syria. The UK is also directly helping to document those atrocities. After despatching a scoping mission to the region in February, the UK sent a further mission between 27 February and 12 March to gather evidence on human rights violations and abuses committed in Syria. The work undertaken by the mission is necessarily a snapshot, but it has had harrowing accounts of President Assad’s brutal efforts to hold on to power. No one who is responsible can act with impunity or believe that the world will not find out who they are. Justice has a long memory and a long reach. In this case, as in others, there will be a process of accountability.
Once again, I thank my right hon. Friend and others for giving me the opportunity not only to address topical issues of concern, such as the situation in Syria, but to talk about individual cases more generally and to address the wider concerns in the House about the safety in which journalists do—or, in some cases, do not—operate around the world.
I reiterate that the Government believe that journalists must be allowed to express themselves freely and safely within international standards. We strongly condemn their harassment, intimidation and assassination. The role of media professionals remains vital in providing citizens with reliable and accurate information. That role must be protected. The UK is one of the world’s greatest and longest standing democracies, and it transmits around the world our values of freedom of expression and of the importance of people being able to exercise free and informed choices. It is therefore right that we should continue to be at the forefront of setting the highest standards and of insisting that others should meet those standards to the benefit of people around the world.