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Middle East: Press Freedom

Volume 611: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2016

4. What recent representations he has made to his counterparts in the middle east on press freedom in that region. (905040)

We encourage all countries to respect freedom of the media. On concerns about freedom of expression in the middle east, we clearly set out these concerns in our annual human rights report, which was most recently published in April.

It is now four years since the Saudi writer Raif Badawi was arrested. Earlier this month his wife was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for promoting her husband’s cause around the world. Given that it was British engineers who have extracted Saudi oil and built their roads, and given our massive co-operation on matters of defence and foreign policy, are not people around the world and in this country right to have expected a bit more progress than the Government have obtained so far?

The hon. Gentleman and I have debated these matters, both publicly and privately, for a long time. We have a right, duty and determination to raise those matters both in public and in private, and we make no distinction between the two. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has done that on a number of occasions, as have I. It is for the court in Saudi Arabia to follow its processes, as I have explained to the hon. Gentleman in the past. We must encourage advancement in society in Saudi Arabia, but that will not happen overnight.

While encouraging press freedom, what more can the Foreign Office do to tackle Daesh’s misuse of the internet, to ensure that free speech is not twisted and abused?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which we have raised in this House on a number of occasions. The tool used by Daesh to exploit others and to reach every home in every corner of the globe—it will also be used by future extremists—is the internet. We need to make sure that we are able to counter those messages. Daesh is sending a false message of hope, promising a fast track to paradise. We have formed the strategic communications cell in the Foreign Office, which is bringing together expertise from around the country and, indeed, the world to make sure that we can counter the Daesh messages, whether they be on Twitter, Facebook or other websites.

What representations has the Minister made to President Erdogan’s Government in Turkey about their action against press freedom and their suspension of parliamentary immunities, which may open opposition MPs to accusations of offences such as insulting the President? Will the Minister confirm that there are no plans to introduce an offence of insulting the Prime Minister and that a country engaged in such anti-democratic activities would not be eligible for European Union membership?

I concur with the right hon. Gentleman’s view that a free and fair media environment makes for a healthier society. We encourage constructive debate, which is a vital component of a fair and functioning society, no matter where it happens. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has raised the right hon. Gentleman’s specific point with the Turkish Government.

On the importance of setting an example, can the Minister conceive of circumstances where, on finding that a Scottish newspaper was to publish some inconvenient information about Libya, a Minister in the last coalition Government would have tried to suppress that edition?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is wandering down a particular rabbit hole. We never intervene in the media in that manner, unless it is a matter of state security.

Press freedoms are being withdrawn in Turkey. Will the Minister outline the Government’s current position on Turkey’s accession to the EU?

Turkey is covered by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe. If I may, I will ask him to write to my hon. Friend.

Very prudent, especially as the question related to press freedom. It was rather naughty of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) to seek to divert the Minister from the path of virtue, but he was not so tempted.

Does the Minister agree that press freedom in Turkey has been in decline for many years? Despite the fact that he is not directly responsible for the issue, he must know that President Erdogan has been cracking down on his opponents when they make even the mildest of criticisms of him in the press, and now that the immunity of MPs is being lifted in Turkey, human rights will decline even further.

We do not want to see journalists being intimidated, the internet being blocked or people’s ability to speak freely being interfered with, wherever they are in the world. We will continue to make that case from this place and in our direct communications with those Governments.

Does my hon. Friend share my view that the notable journalist and writer T. E. Lawrence—better known as Lawrence of Arabia—was an exponent of freedom in the middle east? Now that the Government have prevented the export of his robes and dagger, where will the public be able to see them as an inspiration for greater understanding of the middle east and to encourage greater freedom in that part of the world?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on weaving in an important aspect of our history and making it relevant to this question. He is absolutely right about the importance of saving not only the robe but the dagger for the nation. They will not be leaving the country. The dagger was given to Lawrence of Arabia by Sherif Nasir after Lawrence’s fantastic attack on Aqaba. On his way there—this was glossed over by the media at the time—he accidentally shot his camel, but he continued on another camel and was able to take Aqaba. He later moved to work in the Foreign Office, and I would like the garment—the gown or the robe—and indeed the dagger to be on display in the Foreign Office. I am not sure that we will be successful in that, but I am glad to say that the dagger will stay in the United Kingdom.

We are very glad that the Minister is spending his time in the Foreign Office so profitably and is becoming so learned.