Skip to main content

Journalists: International Protection

Volume 652: debated on Wednesday 9 January 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered international protection of journalists.

I am very grateful to have the opportunity to debate the very important issue of the international protection of journalists. I am also delighted to see so many colleagues present. We have only an hour so I will endeavour to keep my remarks brief. I thank all those who have helped me with the preparation for the debate and for the more general work they do in this field, particularly Reporters Sans Frontières, Index on Censorship, the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the BBC World Service.

Journalists play a vital role in a free society. Their role in exposing corruption, highlighting injustice and holding Governments to account helps to make a democracy function, but it does not always make them popular. Sadly, in authoritarian regimes, that often leads to imprisonment, being taken hostage, intimidation and sometimes even death.

There are varying figures for the past year, but all agree that 2018 was one of the worst years on record for journalists being killed, imprisoned or held hostage. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, 80 journalists were killed in 2018 during the course of their duties; 348 are being held in prison and 60 held hostage. The countries with the worst records are perhaps predictable: in terms of deaths, they are Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, Yemen and India.

Perhaps the most high profile death was that of Jamal Khashoggi, who died in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It is reported that 11 people are on trial for that in Saudi Arabia, but we have little knowledge of the evidence to suggest that they ultimately bear responsibility. That death was condemned by Turkey—the country in which it took place—but Turkey’s record inspires little confidence. Turkey has 33 journalists imprisoned. One journalist, Pelin Ünker, was sentenced only in the last few days to a year’s imprisonment for her work in investigating the Paradise papers. It is for that reason that international bodies have called for an international, independent investigation into what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. The worst countries for imprisonment of journalists are China, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

I want to mention in particular the work of the BBC World Service, which I have a particular regard for, and the Persian service of the BBC. Its journalists have suffered a relentless campaign against not just them but their families that are still in Iran. BBC World Service journalists in Russia have also found that their data has been published online with an encouragement to hound them. The BBC has made protests against that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I chair the all-party parliamentary BBC group, as he will know from his previous role. It is the case that 152 named individuals, many of whom are based here in London, working for BBC Persia have been prevented from buying or selling property, and their families have been accused of the most hideous things, which is impacting their relatives in Iran. Will he join me in calling for the Minister to do everything he can to protect those individuals?

I absolutely join my hon. Friend. I will call upon the Minister to make it a routine matter to raise concerns about the safety of journalists whenever we have contact with countries where, sadly, imprisonments or deaths have taken place.

I rise as the chair of the cross-party group of the National Union of Journalists. I am very interested in the figures the right hon. Gentleman has presented. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 94 journalists and media staff were killed in work-related incidents last year. In the light of that, does he agree that the UK Government might be called on to do everything possible to support the call for a new United Nations convention on the protection of journalists and media workers?

It is correct that there is a small difference in the figures from RSF and the International Federation. What we all agree is that the figures are extremely worrying and have been going up. That is the reason for the debate. I absolutely join the hon. Lady in calling on the Government to do more. I know the Minister will want to set that out in due course.

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. I welcome this debate. Does he agree in the same vein that the Foreign Office has a very serious and important role in the protection of journalists, and that it must do all it can to protect journalists and our citizens wherever they are?

I agree. I was going to say and probably will say again that I absolutely welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to prioritise this issue and for the UK to take a lead internationally in pressing for more to be done. The hon. Lady’s calls have been heard in the Foreign Office and I hope this will prove an opportunity for the Minister to tell us a little about what is intended.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the IFJ. Will he join me in paying tribute to the work of the IFJ and the NUJ? Does he agree that strong trade unions are a force for good in protecting democracy and freedom of expression?

I do not always leap to say that trade unions are a force for good, but in this instance I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. The International Federation of Journalists does great work alongside the other organisations that I mentioned. This is a priority area for non-governmental organisations and a lot of work is being done, but, unfortunately, one reason for that is that the record is so poor at present.

I talked about countries that perhaps will not have come as a great surprise—places such as China, which has the worst record for imprisonment, and Afghanistan and Syria. Sadly, this is also happening in Europe. I want particularly to mention the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta at the end of October 2017, and the death of Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and Victoria Marinova in Bulgaria. The climate that provokes hostility towards journalism is, to some extent, encouraged by intemperate remarks from people who really should know better. I do not want to single out President Trump, but I think his attacks on journalism generally have not helped in this regard. When someone such as the President of Czech Republic holds up a mock assault rifle labelled “for journalists”, that clearly will lead to a climate in which journalists have reason to fear.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that even in this country we have to be very careful what we say about our attitudes to journalists, as to politicians and everyone else? As a former journalist, I am well aware that one of the prerequisites for the job is the willingness to put yourself at risk to uncover public injustice in this country and abroad. Perhaps we need to be very wary in this country, as elsewhere in Europe, about the intemperate language we use.

I agree with the hon. Lady. Like almost everyone in this House I suspect, I have had occasion to be deeply unhappy about some of the things that journalists have done, but I recognise that freedom of the press is a vital component of a free society. Therefore, to some extent we have to take the reports that we do not like alongside those that we do.

Since we are talking about Europe, does my right hon. Friend welcome and support the work of the Council of Europe to protect journalists, and the new platform it has set up that makes it very public which journalists have been attacked and imprisoned unjustly?

I very much support the work of the Council of Europe. I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which also highlights journalistic abuses, but, unfortunately, as I just said, Europe does not have a spotless record. Indeed, the new country holding the presidency of European Union, Romania, has a poor record on intimidation of journalists.

The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous with interventions. He will be aware that the Council of Europe has taken up the case of Mehman Huseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist and human rights activist who has been in prison for nearly two years for the so-called crime of slander. He has been on hunger strike for two weeks. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the British Government should also take up Mr Huseynov’s case and make representations to the Azerbaijani authorities?

I agree entirely with the hon. and learned Lady. I have my own criticisms of Azerbaijan and regard it as a badge of honour that I am blacklisted from visiting. That is a particularly bad case and Mr Huseynov should be added to the list of those whose cases we are pursuing internationally at every opportunity.

I want to allow as many people as possible to speak, so I will make just two points to finish. First, as I indicated, I am encouraged by the Foreign Secretary’s statements that he wants to prioritise this. I understand that the British Government intend to organise an international conference on the subject of the protection of journalists later this year, which is a very welcome initiative. As the newly elected chair of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I intend to organise a parallel conference alongside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office one. While the FCO can try and reach agreement among Governments that more needs to be done on as wide a basis as possible, we can try to mobilise parliamentarians from different countries to give this priority. I look forward to working with the Minister in due course.

Secondly, there have been calls for a UN special representative for the safety of journalists. That would demonstrate the importance with which the issue is held by the UN. At present, it comes within a broader remit, but the specific appointment of somebody to highlight the safety of journalists would help. I understand that about 30 countries have signed up to that proposition, so I hope the Government will consider adding our support in due course.

Sadly, there are a lot of cases and I could spend a great deal of time talking about them. Hon. Members have taken the opportunity to raise some. I am encouraged that so many Members have come to the debate, so I will deliberately keep what I say short so that as many as possible have the opportunity to contribute.

Order. I have seven speakers listed and intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople by 5.14 pm. If Members who I call can confine their remarks to four minutes each, we will get everybody in.

Thank you for your guidance, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who is the new chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, of which I am a vice-chairman. The IPU does very good work on the human rights of Members of Parliament all over the world, and that includes many journalists who are in trouble.

The debate is particularly timely, in the light of the brutal murder of the Washington Post columnist and Saudi national, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, and the very real dangers faced by journalists around the world in carrying out their work. I note that TIME magazine collectively named Jamal Khashoggi and other journalists who had been killed or imprisoned as its person of the year for 2018. Its editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, explained that

“influence—the measure…for nine decades…of TIME’s Person of the Year—derives from courage,”

and that the named journalists and one news organisation being recognised

“have paid a terrible price”

to receive that accolade.

Journalists and the media are important civil society actors and fundamental to ensuring that information is collected, disseminated, exchanged and evaluated to illuminate the dark corners where suffering, discrimination and injustice prevail, and to hold those in power to account to prevent tyranny and corruption. It is not surprising that those with something to hide, or who are motivated by power, greed or hatred, are often particularly keen to undermine, stigmatise and silence those endeavouring to bring their actions and abuses to light, by enforced censorship, the creation of a climate necessitating self-censorship, intimidation, persecution, unwarranted criminal or civil prosecution, imprisonment, or even disappearance and murder.

The International Federation of Journalists, which is a global group, notes that 84 journalists, cameramen, fixers and technicians died last year in targeted killings, bomb attacks and cross-fire incidents. It highlights an ongoing safety crisis in journalism, which was dramatically illustrated by the cruel murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Interestingly—and worryingly—IFJ figures reveal that more journalists were killed last year for trying to cover stories in their communities, cities and countries than for reporting in armed conflict areas. Increasing dangers are posed to journalists by a growing intolerance of independent reporting, by populism, by rampant corruption, by organised crime and by the breakdown of law and order in countries such as Mexico, India, Pakistan, the US, the Philippines and Guatemala.

The Committee to Protect Journalists recently published a report on the number of journalists imprisoned by Governments. At least 251 journalists were jailed in 2018, underlining authoritarian Governments’ ongoing attempts to close down critical reporting. According to the CPJ, Turkey, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea are imprisoning the highest number of journalists, as the right hon. Member for Maldon mentioned. For the third year in a row, Turkey, China and Egypt are responsible for more than half of those jailed around the world. Turkey again has the dubious distinction of taking the No. 1 spot, further to President Erdoğan’s attempt to stifle all peaceful debate, criticism and potential challenge to his rule. That includes a number of people I met when I took an IPU delegation to Turkey, where we met journalists who were in fear of being imprisoned and subsequently have been arrested and imprisoned. People feel that fear daily: they do not know when a knock at the door will come.

For the third consecutive year, every one of the 68 journalists behind bars in Turkey was facing anti-state charges, including alleged membership of a terrorist organisation, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation, spreading propaganda or engagement in terrorist propaganda. Although Erdoğan began the crackdown against his opponents before the 2016 failed coup, repression has undoubtedly intensified since then, with the closure of more than 100 news outlets by decree and thousands of journalists losing their jobs as a result. As mentioned last week, a Turkish journalist and member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists was sentenced to more than a year in jail for her work on the Paradise papers, simply because those papers and that investigation revealed details of the business activities of the country’s former Prime Minister, who is now speaker of the Turkish Parliament, Binali Yildirim, and his sons, despite the Yildirim family admitting that the articles about their Maltese businesses were accurate.

Sadly, I appear to have run out of time already, but I want to say that I went to Iraq after the invasion—or the liberation—and met journalists who had to write their copy at that time according to press releases given to them by the Iraqi Government. Of course, they were what Saddam Hussein wanted them to say, rather than their own observations.

I pay tribute to the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, based in Islington, which trains journalists and was then in the process of retraining journalists in Iraq. I went along to one of those meetings and asked whether they had any questions for me. One of them put his hand up and said, “Why did it take you so long to get here?” They now felt that they were free, which they had not been before, to observe what was going on in their country and give accurate reports on the excesses of the Saddam Hussein regime. As an ex-journalist myself, I value the freedom that journalists have and take all over the world, and the bravery they show when they are likely to get into trouble in the countries in which they are reporting.

I am going to call John Howell now. I am imposing a four-minute time limit on your speech, Mr Howell, consistent with my previous guidance. I indicate to other speakers that after that, there will be a three-minute guideline.

I will try to keep it as short as possible, Mr Bailey. I start by re-emphasising the point I made in the intervention; I know that I am a bit of a Council of Europe buff, but I make no apology for saying it here. The issue is of great importance to the Council of Europe, both keeping journalists up to the mark and ensuring they do not exploit people, and ensuring that they are safe and that there is suitable protection for them.

The reason we are concerned about this in the Council of Europe is one of self-preservation. So many journalists from around Europe are there that there is a great need to ensure that their interests are kept up to the mark. For example, the head of the Ukrainian delegation is himself a journalist, and he and I have a lot of discussions about journalism in Ukraine. In addition to Azerbaijan and the problems we have with Russia at the moment, Ukraine is also a place that needs to look after its journalists in a big way where they are under threat from the Russian invasion.

Of course, the Council of Europe relies on the European convention on human rights, and article 10 is the appropriate bit. While I hope it is not necessary all the time to come back to the courts in order to ensure the protection of journalists, I am pleased to see that the European Court of Human Rights has produced a number of judgments that thoroughly protect the rights of journalists.

The other thing that the Council has done, which I will just mention, is to introduce a platform for the protection of journalism and safety of journalists. The platform is a public space to facilitate the compilation, processing and dissemination of information on serious concerns about media freedom and the safety of journalists in Council of Europe member states—it obviously cannot go outside those member states, but it does those things within member states. The two things required for that are, first, to ensure that we are all alerted on time when journalists’ safety is threatened, which it does by putting their pictures up on a public database and, secondly, to take a systematic approach, ensuring that every journalist who is threatened is there, which I think it does.

The platform has a number of things that people need to comply with: there must be a serious concern about media freedom, there must take place in a Council of Europe member state, the information must be reliable and based on fact, and the information must also be in the public domain, which I think is a sensible requirement so that we do not have things that are half-hidden. With all that, I am encouraged that this mechanism is in place to enable the safety of journalism and journalists to be protected.

George Orwell said:

“Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose.”

I will offer three reflections on that statement in three minutes, but before I do so, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on his exposition, which demonstrated his typical clarity and brevity. Whatever our political differences, he and I have always shared an enthusiasm—a love, even—for freedom of the press.

That is my first point: the decisions we make in this House matter. In our nation we are lucky to live among only 13% of humanity who enjoy freedom of the press. The vast bulk of the world does not. When we make decisions, as we did last year about whether there should be punitive damages on news organisations that did not sign up to a state-approved regulator, those decisions matter, because dictators around the world look at what we are doing. I am proud that our party changed its policy and our deputy leader said that never again would we advocate that. When did “mainstream media” become a term of abuse? When did “balanced news” become a term of abuse? That has entered our politics as well, and what we do here is important for what happens in the rest of the world.

Secondly, the BBC has been mentioned. I was up early on Sunday morning and heard a religious and ethical programme on Radio 4 called “Sunday” on which Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, spoke about this very issue. She said that it is the worst time ever in the world to be a journalist, and explained that statement in a couple of ways. She said that the respect that journalists reporting internationally around the world enjoyed when she was young is less apparent now. She said that that was partly because in the past, even the most hard-nosed terrorist organisations needed journalists to get their message out. Now they do not need them so much, and there are more kidnappings. She also pointed out that 98% of journalists who are imprisoned are local journalists, not renowned international journalists from the BBC or CNN. That is because, in the past 20 years, such journalists have had more outlets through social media and so on, but they are also very exposed to oppressive regimes around the world. We must admire and honour them.

My final point relates to another thing that the right hon. Gentleman and I share: a love of Ukraine, which has already been mentioned in this debate. In November or December last year, I went to a commemoration of 85 years since the holodomor—Stalin’s man-made famine in Ukraine. It was British journalists, Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge, who helped to expose it, all those years ago. Gareth Jones’ reporting was printed in The Guardian, which was doing good work then, as it is now. That fearless journalism is needed in Ukraine now, particularly in Donbass, to give truthful accounts of what is happening and what Putin’s regime is up to in that part of the world. Never has freedom of the press been more needed in Ukraine and, indeed, throughout the world.

I will speak specifically and in a little more detail on behalf of the BBC Persian journalists and their families who have been targeted for harassment by the Iranian authorities, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), whom I congratulate on introducing this debate.

The BBC World Service states that the Iranian authorities have systematically targeted BBC Persian journalists who are mainly based in London and their families in Iran since the service launched satellite television in 2009. However, recent measures have escalated that persecution and the World Service has serious concerns for the safety and wellbeing of the journalists and their families. I commend the bravery of those journalists and of their families who support them.

In 2017, the Iranian authorities commenced a criminal investigation into journalists working for the service in London, alleging that their work was a crime against Iran’s national security. That was accompanied by an asset-freezing injunction preventing 152 named individuals, comprising mainly current and former BBC Persian staff, from buying or selling property inside Iran, as we have heard.

Other measures against the journalists and their families have included arbitrary arrests, interrogation and detention of family members in Iran, confiscation of passports and travel bans on family members leaving Iran to prevent them from seeing their relatives who work for the BBC Persian service, ongoing surveillance and harassment, and the spread of fake and defamatory news stories designed to undermine the reputation of those staff and their families, for example by accusing them of prostitution or infidelity, much of which is targeted at the female journalists.

Since August 2018 there have been targeted attacks on several journalists in Iran’s state press, using inflammatory language and providing names and photographs of the journalists. Before I give an example, I ask the Minister if he will once again raise these concerns with the Iranian authorities. Time precludes me from going into the full details, which have come to me this week directly from the World Service, but if I may I will provide the full text to the Minister.

To give a recent example, in August 2018, on Iran’s national day for journalists, comments were made about BBC Persian through the Mizan news agency, which is affiliated to the Iranian judiciary, describing BBC Persian staff as a “mafia gang” who

“must be held answerable for their actions against the Iranian people”,

and who

“will surely be exposed one day before the Iranian nation, and God’s hand of justice will manifest itself through the arms of the Iranian people, and they will be punished for their actions.”

Those who follow Iranian politics will know that language is ominous—it has been used in the past with regard to extrajudicial killings. BBC World Service staff are extremely concerned that the statements represent a significant recent escalation of the threats made against named BBC Persian colleagues.

Order. I have just realised that my arithmetic was slightly out and that I will have to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 5.9 pm, so there is a now a two-minute time limit.

I will keep my comments short. I only want to raise with the Minister the case of Mehman Huseynov, who, as I said earlier, is an Azerbaijani journalist, human rights activist and blogger who has been in prison for the so-called crime of slander since March 2017. As has been said, independent human rights organisations view Azerbaijan as one of the world’s most repressive countries, and its judicial system is not seen as independent of its powerful Executive. Azerbaijan is a part of Europe, and is not very far from here.

Further charges were levelled against Mr Huseynov in December and he is now on hunger strike in protest against them. The charges against him have been dubbed “bogus” by the Washington Post, and his case has also attracted support from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Human Rights Watch and US Senator Marco Rubio.

Because of Mr Huseynov’s hunger strike, his health is deteriorating. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights saw fit to make an intervention earlier this week, calling the Azerbaijani deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs to raise Mr Huseynov’s case. She told the deputy Minister that the charges against Mr Huseynov should be dropped because they lack credibility and underscored that the authorities are under an obligation to afford the necessary medical care to Mr Huseynov, whose condition is extremely worrying. She particularly asked the officials to transfer Mr Huseynov to a civilian hospital for medical care.

Mr Huseynov is a very young man. He was born in November 1992. His plight is particularly shocking when one thinks that he is basically in prison for simply exercising what we in this country would take as natural—the right of free speech.

I am sorry that I was a bit late coming into the debate, although I was actually on time—we started early. I have two minutes, so I had better get on with it.

I will talk about the protection of journalists in conflict. Some 26 years ago, as the UN commander, I was sent to Bosnia by the British Government with the explicit instruction that I was not to protect journalists. I was not to look after them, I was not to sustain them, I was not to give them food and I was not to give them fuel. They were not my responsibility and I was to leave them alone.

The Ministry of Defence then accredited 102 journalists to my battalion. I thought that something was weird. Then, on 20 October 1992, I recovered the body of a BBC journalist who had been cut in half by an armour-piercing round. He was a dreadful mess. He was dead, of course, which I was very upset by. His name was Tihomir Tunuković. I brought him back and thought something was wrong. On 1 November, three more journalists were in my hospital. I thought, “This is actually wrong. I have been given rotten instructions here.” They were British journalists but, British or not, any journalist required my protection, so I changed the instructions.

I note that I have 33 seconds left, so I will say only one thing. The Geneva convention should have a new protocol—perhaps the Foreign Office could start that process—to protect journalists, because the Geneva conventions are actually the laws of war and conflict. Thank you, Mr Bailey. I am sorry that I screwed up my speech.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) never screws up his speech. He spoke exceptionally well.

I thank the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for introducing the debate. I was shocked to read some of the stats that have been read out already. The Reporters Sans Frontières worldwide round-up of journalists killed, detained, held hostage or missing in 2018 is sad reading, with 80 journalists killed, 348 in prison and 60 held hostage. I represent Strangford in Northern Ireland. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that there was a campaign of murder and attacks on journalists during that terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland, with newspaper offices and delivery vans burned and offices blown up. That was all part of that 30-year conflict of terrorism and malicious murder.

These people are simply doing their job and reporting the news. While I have sometimes had difficulties with how some news is reported and sometimes struggle with what could be deemed as biased reporting, there is no doubt in my mind of the right of the reporter to present factual information. An impartial reporting mechanism, and not simply a propaganda machine, goes hand in hand with democracy.

The figures for journalists murdered across the world include 15 in Afghanistan, 11 in Syria, nine in Mexico, eight in Yemen, six in the United States and six in India. Some 31% were killed on the job, while 48 were premeditated murders. Many of those figures worry us greatly. Over the past 10 years, 702 professional journalists alone have been killed around the world. That trend is increasing even in Europe, the region that respects press freedom the most but that has experienced the sharpest decline in the Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

It is clear that freedom in any nation should include freedom of the press. That freedom must be protected, and protection is an active thing. It is not tutting when something goes wrong, but actively declaring, and using diplomatic pressure to assert, that freedom of the press is essential. That is something that I and the House believe in. Hopefully this debate will make things better for journalists across the world.

I will make just one additional point. I too have seen at first hand that many people go overseas to report in areas of conflict, in places as far away as Syria and Yemen, but also in conflict zones where the British Government are doing great work on humanitarian support and conflict resolution.

As the Government take forth their strategy and policy this year, I urge the Minister to use our bilateral footprint across the world much more emphatically and robustly at a Government-to-Government level, while at the same time integrating our approach. We spend a great deal of UK taxpayer resource not only on humanitarian issues but on capacity building—supporting institutions, strengthening governance, working with NGOs and civil society organisations. We can support journalists, free speech and freedom of the press.

As we approach World Press Freedom Day in May this year, there is a fantastic opportunity, notwithstanding UN conventions and Geneva protocols, for the United Kingdom to lead the world—as we already do when it comes to aid, foreign policy and our humanitarian approach—to strengthen our profile internationally and to give voice to those who need support to safeguard international freedoms, as well as political and press freedoms. The UK Government could do that quite robustly.

The number of Members here despite the magnitude of events in the main Chamber just goes to show the high regard in which we hold international journalists. I do not have time to go through everybody’s contributions, but I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on bringing the debate to the House and particularly on his proposals for a UN special representative on the safety of journalists. I think that proposal will garner cross-party support, and I will absolutely add my name to it. I studied media and journalism, and when I was at university I wanted to be a war correspondent—I held the likes of Kate Adie up as absolute stars. I did not realise that dream, but I did end up in another reasonably good job.

Over the holidays, I read Lindsey Hilsum’s book “In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin”. Her incredible life is depicted in a film that is about to come out, “A Private War”. The places that Marie reported on included Chechnya, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Sri Lanka—where she was injured and lost an eye—Syria and Africa. She was, we believe, assassinated in Syria in 2012. She held Martha Gellhorn, who reported the rise of fascism in the 1930s, in high regard; Gellhorn was one of her heroes. The plight of female journalists is a particular issue. As we have seen in recent years, all international journalists are under threat and it is an increasingly dangerous time, but female journalists in particular have had terrible experiences.

In an address that Marie Colvin gave at St Bride’s church on Fleet Street when she returned from Afghanistan, she reflected on the injury suffered by a colleague who stepped on a landmine and had to have both legs amputated. She said:

“The expectation of that blast is the stuff of nightmares.”

I want to share with the House something else that she said:

“We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”

Lindsey Hilsum wrote about Marie’s determination to bear witness and its importance. She said that Marie was

“the champion of bearing witness so that even if no one stopped the wars, they could never say they had not known what was happening.”

That goes to the heart of the issue. Marie’s death, or assassination, in 2012 was a tragedy not only for her family and friends, but for journalism and the truth. Her ability to report and bear witness was vital.

Journalists are our eyes and ears on the international stage. They go where we cannot. They see what we cannot see. They hear what we cannot hear. That is particularly important for politicians. There is often a relationship of conflict between journalists and politicians, but we must hold them in the highest regard—indeed, cherish them—because their accounts help to direct our decisions about aid and about troops and intervention. Without them, we are blind to the great atrocities that, as we have heard, many Governments and regimes are visiting upon their own people and other nations.

If we do not protect international journalists, if we do not protect their integrity and their safety, we risk becoming detached and distanced. I want and hope to hear from the Minister what more we can do, particularly from a Foreign Office perspective, because as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services and assistance, I have interviewed a number of partners of those who have been incarcerated, including Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari, and Daniela, the wife of Matthew Hedges, who was studying in the United Arab Emirates. Their experiences are unbelievable. We must remember that academics and researchers are just as important as journalists. We must be able to protect them, and we must not fall foul of the trade relationships that we may have with countries coming above the diplomatic relationships that we have, in protecting journalists and others who in order to tell stories travel to places where we cannot go.

On a point of order, Mr Bailey. I am so sorry, but I was flustered when I spoke and I want to correct the record. Tihomir Tunuković, whose body I picked up, was killed on Sunday 1 November, not on 20 October. I hope that the record can be amended accordingly.

I am sure that it can be, Mr Stewart. Thank you for that correction and, indeed, for the very interesting tale that you were able to tell us today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my right hon. Friend, if I may call him that, the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on securing and introducing this debate. This is a timely moment to have such a debate, and in many ways it is a shame that it could not be for three hours, not the one hour. I congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part on their excellent contributions. They were brief contributions, but powerful none the less.

I think that Labour Members strongly agree with the proposal made by the right hon. Gentleman that there should be a new UN convention on the protection of journalists. We also heard contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan), who in the past was, I believe, chair of the all-party parliamentary BBC group, my colleague and friend the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who always tells excellent and very relevant stories from his own experience, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel). I thank them all for their extremely good contributions.

The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi last year was a frighteningly vivid reminder of the serious threats that journalists face globally today. It is the most dangerous time to be a journalist globally in more than a decade. As has been said this afternoon, the freedom of the press is one of the most powerful platforms for freedom of expression. It is a means of informing, of scrutinising and of disseminating information and is a fundamental pillar of democracy. Article 19 of the UN universal declaration of human rights states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The protection of journalists and their sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom, but in the last two years alone journalists have been murdered in Europe—in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Malta. Organisations such as Reporters Without Borders have called on Governments, including the British Government, to create a special rapporteur with the responsibility to protect journalists and press freedom. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about that in a few minutes.

I shall give some statistics to remind hon. Members here this afternoon. In 2018, 94 journalists were killed, an increase from 82 in the previous year—far too many. Afghanistan was the most dangerous country in which to be a journalist, with 16 journalists and reporters murdered. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 251 journalists were jailed for their work in 2018. There are currently 126 journalists detained across member states of the Council of Europe, and almost 70 of those are in Turkey, as we heard. It is the case that 98% of jailed journalists are local people imprisoned by their own Governments, that 62% of journalists killed covered politics and political activity, and that 70% of jailed journalists imprisoned globally were arrested on anti-state charges, including terrorism.

Fewer than 10% of the killings of journalists end up with a prosecution. The impunity definitely exacerbates the cycle of violence against journalists. As we have heard, three countries—Turkey, China and Egypt—were responsible for more than half the journalists jailed globally. There has been an increase in politicians and other individuals labelling journalists as “enemies” and making false and damaging claims about the media.

Examples include Donald Trump—he has already been mentioned today—labelling media outlets such as the Washington Post and CNN as enemies of the people; media outlets run by close associates of Viktor Orbán in Hungary listing journalists and academics as “mercenaries” for George Soros; in Turkey, President Erdoğan forcing the closure of media outlets over allegedly “terrorist propaganda” and supporting the 2016 coup attempt; and BBC Persian staff in Iran, as we have heard, having their assets frozen. I am very grateful to Julia Harris from the BBC World Service for the information that she provided to me and all of us this afternoon. She does an excellent job for the World Service. Other examples are media outlets in Venezuela—this has not been mentioned—being forced to shut down by authorities alleging irregularities in their licences and, as we have heard today, authorities in Azerbaijan targeting the last independent news agency in the country, Turan, with claims of “financial irregularities”.

The results are that many media outlets are shut down and quite often the licences and assets of those organisations are given to close supporters of the Government or regime in those countries. Of course, that means reduced media pluralism and the creation of pliant media that will toe the Government line. We all stand against that, and we all need to do more to oppose it and to ensure that journalists have the freedom that keeps our society free and fair.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for securing parliamentary time to debate this very important issue. His passionate commitment to the strategic issues around global media is of long standing. Let me take this opportunity to personally pay tribute to his previous outstanding work in this important and increasingly high-profile field, both as Secretary of State and as a two-term Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.

We were also delighted to hear contributions and interventions from a range of other hon. Members, and I will try to respond to the points that were raised, but first, I will share some of what the UK Government are already doing to try to improve the climate for media freedom and our plans to do more over the coming year.

There can be no doubt that media freedom is under increasing attack across the world. The figures speak for themselves: 80 journalists were killed in 2018, 348 are languishing in prison and 60 are being held hostage. It is appalling that these numbers represent a steady increase on those of previous years. Countries are increasingly using restrictive laws to stifle freedom of expression and to prevent the functioning of an independent media. The climate is worsening fast.

Naturally, for many people—even those in public life—it is uncomfortable to find oneself in the glare of the media spotlight, but I hope that all of us, as publicly elected representatives, believe and appreciate that such scrutiny is an essential part of a vibrant and healthy democracy, and that it is of huge benefit to society as a whole. It is no coincidence that countries with the freest media are also generally the most transparent and the least corrupt. Needless to say, the same applies in reverse. Powerful people may think twice about abusing their position if there is a good chance that their behaviour will be exposed in the media; conversely, an absence of scrutiny can lead to the very worst abuses of power and corruption.

Here in the UK, we have long had a culture of supporting freedom of expression. We are rightly proud of our tradition of an independent media, which underpins the fundamental values of our democracy. As a consequence, we collectively tolerate the excesses and, at times, the low journalistic standards of our tabloid press. That is a price we have to pay. However, in recent days in the vicinity of the House, the Sky News journalist Kay Burley and my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) were subjected to unacceptable levels of harassment.

The wealth of media expertise and innovation in this country not only strengthens our own media sector, but supports the development of a strong and independent media in many countries overseas.

Regarding UK action, I was very taken by the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). Let me reassure her that posts overseas routinely lobby Governments, often on a bilateral basis, wherever and whenever serious violations occur. My fellow Foreign Office Ministers and I also raise these issues routinely with our counterparts, and we will continue to do so, while also taking up individual cases personally—a point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), as well.

We promote freedom of expression and media freedom all over the world, and we routinely raise concerns about serious violations with foreign Governments. One such case was highlighted during my trip last week to Vietnam, where I raised with ministerial counterparts concerns about the plan for a new cyber-security law in that country. I know that such discussions go on in visits that Ministers undertake across the globe. We also support media freedom through our Magna Carta Fund in some of the countries where human rights and democracy are most at threat.

In the multilateral sphere, we will continue to use our influence to support media freedom, the safety of journalists and freedom of expression at the United Nations Human Rights Council. A current example of this is seen in Mexico—a country that has been named by Reporters Without Borders as among the world’s five most deadly countries not at war. In November, we raised concerns about limitations to freedom of expression and violence against journalists and human rights defenders during the United Nation’s universal periodic review of Mexico. We raise these issues as important international principles in their own right, but in the past 12 months we have also raised concerns in all the specific countries mentioned in the debate.

We shall also utilise our active and ongoing membership of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. We will continue to use those important vehicles to highlight our concerns, galvanise consensus and effect change, and we are looking actively for ways to use them to greater and more meaningful effect.

Tribute should be paid to our own Baron Foulkes of Cumnock, who is the general rapporteur in the Council of Europe for media freedom and the protection of journalists.

That tribute has indeed been paid. I also take on board the proposal that we support a UN representative or convention on the protection of journalists. I know that is something that is actively being pursued.

In the coming year and beyond, we will strengthen our efforts yet further. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon referred to the work being done by the new Foreign Secretary, who is very focused on this issue. We shall continue to work through those important multilateral bodies to galvanise consensus and effect change, and we are looking actively for ways of building on their work. We will also use our membership of like-minded groupings, such as the Freedom Online Coalition and the Community of Democracies, to step up our efforts specifically to promote media freedom and the safety of journalists. We shall continue to work closely with civil society and media organisations to ensure that we use the influencing power of Government to good effect, to complement and build on their own efforts. However, it is also important that we ramp up the bilateral response with countries with which we have strong connections, whether through the Department for International Development or in a range of other areas. We will continue to work together in that regard.

We must also recognise that we cannot do all this work alone. That is why, later this year, we will host in London an international conference on media freedom. Our aim is to bring the issue to global attention, promote the value and benefits of a free media—indeed, a free internet—to a wider audience, and mobilise an international consensus behind the protection of journalists, as the obvious guardians of those freedoms.

A robust, free, vibrant and varied media landscape is also one of the best antidotes to hostile state disinformation. Like restrictions on the media, disinformation also requires a concerted response. Here, too, we feel that the UK is at the forefront of a growing international consensus on the need for action. At home, we are drawing, among other things, on the experience of our Nordic and Baltic partners, which means taking a whole-of-society approach to this matter. That involves working towards three key objectives in relation to disinformation: first, deterring the use of disinformation by exposing and disrupting the perpetrators; secondly, increasing transparency and accountability online to make it more difficult and less rewarding to spread disinformation; and thirdly, making people more resilient through education and empowerment. We are investing £100 million in that effort around the world, which includes, at the moment, £8.5 million in eastern Europe and central Asia alone.

To respond to some specific points raised by Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) talked about Iran. The reports of BBC staff in Iran being harassed and subjected to asset freezes and similar forms of mistreatment are deeply worrying. The Foreign Secretary specifically raised our concerns about the harassment of BBC Persia staff and their families in Iran when he was there during his visit on 9 and 10 December. Officials at the British embassy in Tehran have also twice raised concerns with leading figures in the Iranian Government. Members should be made aware that in December 2018, we once again co-sponsored the UN General Assembly’s resolution on the human rights situation in Iran, specifically highlighting the poor record on freedom of expression.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) asked about the case of Mr Huseynov in Azerbaijan. We regularly express our concerns about the rights of political prisoners with the Azeri authorities. Over the past two years, we have attended a number of Mr Huseynov’s court hearings, and we met with his lawyer most recently on 3 January this year. The UK will continue to follow the case closely and is considering next steps with our international partners.

I will conclude with this thought. A free press is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, because it holds the powerful to account, helps to expose corruption and lack of integrity, and is one of the best antidotes to disinformation. That is why we must take action to stop the intimidation, harassment and persecution of journalists across the world, and why this year we will place as many resources as we can from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—not only financial, but time —behind a campaign to reverse the worrying trends outlined in this debate.

I thank all my colleagues who have come this afternoon. My only regret is that we have had only one hour in which to hold this debate, but the fact that so many have spoken, representing five parties from across the House, is an indication of how important the issue is seen in all quarters of Parliament. I was therefore particularly pleased to hear confirmation from the Minister that it will be one of the priorities of the Foreign Office in the coming year, when we will be holding the conference. I hope that this debate will act almost as a curtain raiser, and that we can return to the issue in due course as that conference approaches and thereafter. As I said earlier, I hope to organise a parliamentary conference in parallel to the Foreign Office one, so that parliamentarians from across the world can come together to talk about the issue too. I thank everyone who has come along and contributed this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered international protection of journalists.

Sitting adjourned.