I beg to move,
That this House has considered World Press Freedom Day 2022.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. In the 21st century, speaking truth to power is an increasingly dangerous business. While we have in our minds the war in Ukraine and Russia’s atrocities in that country, I want to start the debate by remembering the eight journalists who, as they have gone about trying to show the world the truth of Russia’s atrocities in that country, have been murdered in their line of work. Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, a French journalist working for BFMTV, was killed on 30 May 2022. Mantas Kvedaravičius, a documentary film maker, was killed on 2 April. Maks Levin, a photo reporter for Reuters, was found dead on 1 April. Oksana Baulina, a journalist for The Insider, was killed on 23 March. Brent Renaud, a documentary film maker, was killed on 13 March. Oleksandra Kuvshynova was killed on 14 March. Pierre Zakrzewski, a journalist for Fox News, was killed on 14 March. And Evgeny Sakun, a media assistant for the Kyiv Live TV channel, was killed on 1 March.
They are among the 29 journalists and two media assistants who have lost their lives in their line of work this year so far. There have been eight in Ukraine and eight in Mexico. There are also atrocities against journalists and suppression of journalists’ voices elsewhere in the world, particularly among the freedom movement in Hong Kong, and in Ethiopia, where commentary on the brutal civil war has been banned by the Government. These people are trying to inform the world and inform the communities that they serve of the truth of what is happening, and for it they are losing their lives.
When we had the debate last year on World Press Freedom Day and also strategic lawsuits against journalists, I mentioned the case of Catherine Belton, and it is nice to know that people do listen to these debates when we gather together in Westminster Hall. In that case, the person who listened to it was a public relations representative, working for Roman Abramovich, who wanted to call me in to speak about what a great humanitarian he was and why some of the issues raised in Catherine Belton’s book, “Putin’s People”, did not accurately reflect those issues as he saw them. They say a week is a long time in politics. A year is an eternity, and the work of journalists such as Catherine Belton highlighting the activities of Russian oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich has now come to much fuller attention and, as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, some of these issues are taken much more seriously now than they were a year ago.
We now take much more seriously the web of networks and influence of highly wealthy people, particularly oligarchs from countries such as Russia, and the way they have sought to suppress commentary and suppress the active work of journalists to hold them to account. It is right that, under the sanctions regime, the use by such people of London lawyers and London PR firms has been restricted, but we must recognise that that has also been a considerable issue in the suppression of free speech and a free press brought about by wealthy people using British courts to close down British journalists speaking truth to power. The Government want to bring in new legislation, particularly with regard to strategic lawsuits and the abuse of the courts to silence commentary in the press. It is important that we consider a wide range of issues, such as the need for a proper register of people who work for foreign Governments but work in the UK without declaring that interest, as we create a much better legal framework for journalists to operate in.
Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, we have also been reminded of just how vital our own news-gathering services are. I was pleased to see the Government award an additional £4 million to the BBC World Service to support its commentary on the war in Ukraine and political relations in Belarus and in Russia in particular. Even though the Russian Government have sought to close down British reporting and the BBC in those countries, we have still been able to help people to access the news from the BBC through alternative routes. Some people are using, and have been shown how to use and download, VPNs—virtual private networks—so that they can still access BBC services from within Russia without the knowledge or sight of the Russian Government. The use and the ability of our infrastructure to report news, to share news and to get truth to people around the world is increasingly important, and it is right that we continue to support strongly the World Service and the work of British journalists around the world.
We are seeing an important change in the UK as well with the introduction of the Online Safety Bill, which is currently before Parliament, and in the Queen’s Speech, the commitment from the Government to bring in competition legislation in the digital environment is very important as well. First, with regard to digital competition, it is right that all journalists and news organisations have a fair opportunity to reach their audiences, and that all those organisations have the right to be fairly compensated for the use of their media.
One of the biggest acts of suppression of journalistic voices in the past 20 years has been the demonetisation of media as a consequence of the aggregation of social media platforms. It is much harder for newspapers to make money as they used to, by selling advertising to place against news stories to pay for the journalism that goes into reporting them, if they cannot be remunerated. The way in which social media platforms aggregate news by allowing people to share stories but not sharing any of the data or information about that news and information with the journalists and the news organisation that created it in the first place has taken a lot of money out of the market.
We have all seen our own local news organisations hollowed out. They are much smaller than they used to be and can employ far fewer journalists. That has affected national as well as local media, and we should take that issue very seriously. The introduction, through competition legislation, of a news bargaining code, similar to the one already created in Australia, will be hugely beneficial to media in this country. It will mean that the big tech platforms such as Google and Facebook will have to make a contribution to the news organisations whose content they profit from but do not currently share the benefits of that profit with.
The code has been introduced in Australia with considerable impact. It is enabling news organisations to hire journalists again and to beef up their reporting capability in a way that they could not have done before. Canada is looking at introducing such legislation, and it will be welcome if we do that in the UK, too.
The second point about the Online Safety Bill is the protection of freedom of speech and the journalism that can exist within it. The Government have been asked, through the report of the Joint Committee that I chaired, to create a provision that journalistic content from a recognised news organisation should be presumed to have a right to be carried on platforms. It should not be for major social media platforms to become the editor-in-chief of what the free press can write about. There is a great danger that if platforms decide to strike down news content because they disagree with it, that content will not reach the audiences for which it is intended.
In the modern world a media organisation cannot not use services such as Facebook and YouTube to reach their audiences. There should therefore be a presumption that the news content produced by a recognised news organisation has the right to reach its audience, whether it is in line with the platform policies of a company or not. News content should have such an exemption because there are already existing routes to complain or take action against legitimate content when it is there. Ultimately, a news editor is legally responsible for all the coverage that they endorse and place in their publication. There are complaints procedures that people may use if they are unhappy with a story that has been written.
Ultimately, the mark of journalism is that people put their name to what they write. People are accountable for what they say and the stories that they tell to the world, and they can be challenged. Much of what is called journalism that exists on social media often does not correspond to those aspects at all. It is often produced by nameless, faceless people and organisations that do not exist, who seek to hide their identity in order to spread lies and disinformation. We have struggled to hold such people to account for the stories that they tell. In fact, a report and study produced by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate during the pandemic traced back most of the anti-vax disinformation in the world to just 12 sources that used their platforms to propagate disinformation around the web.
So we have to think about how legitimate journalism, written by credible journalists, can have the opportunity to reach an audience when it is competing not just against the forces of demonetisation, taking away the revenue that it should generate from producing good stories, but also against a wall and sea of disinformation that is propagated online. One way in which we can protect that is by ensuring that the news organisations are recognised, that they have a right to be carried, and that when their stories are there and are carried they can be challenged or disagreed with, not just struck down.
In the report of the Joint Committee that I chaired on the Online Safety Bill, we recommended that there should be a presumption to carry. The Government have said that they are interested in introducing special provisions in the Online Safety Bill requiring an online media platform that sought to take down a piece of journalistic content that it disagreed with from a recognised news organisation to give notice to the news company before doing so, and a period of time for an appeal process would be allowed. However, I think we can and should go further and say that there should be a presumption to carry, so that proper journalism from accredited news organisations can reach the audiences that it deserves.
It is now more important than ever that people have the opportunity to be challenged by issues that they disagree with, and that the funnels of social media through which people consume news, which tend to give people more extreme versions of what they agree with, can be challenged with alternative opinions. One of the benefits we have seen from the very brave work that journalists are doing, particularly in a war zone such as Ukraine, is that it is becoming harder and harder for states to suppress real news and information within their countries. The Ethiopian Government cannot cover up the atrocities that are taking place on a daily basis in Ethiopia, because of the way in which citizen journalists and others bring such information into the public domain. Similarly, film from within Ukraine about what is really happening on the ground and in cities such as Mariupol—reported by journalists some of whom I named at the beginning of the debate—cannot be suppressed when people can bring it to the world. We should be opening up those channels and making sure that their voices have a right to be heard.
I had not intended to intervene in this debate, because I am afraid that I have to leave. My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on the Online Safety Bill; I am chairing it in Committee, so I am not allowed to speak about it. Before he sits down, will he pay tribute not only to the people who we see on “ITV News”, “Sky News” and “BBC News” every night from Ukraine and who are incredibly brave, but to the cameramen and soundmen behind them, who are unseen and unheard but equally brave?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. As I said at the start, 29 journalists have died, as have two media assistants—exactly the sort of people he refers to. They work together on the frontline, and without the work of those production assistants, the stories that people seek to tell simply would not be heard, because they would not reach their audiences. It is absolutely a team effort. My right hon. Friend is right to say that sometimes we focus on the journalist we see on the screen, but they are just one person in a team who are integral to bringing that truth and that story to the world, and we should remember them as well.
The flashpoint of a war brings home the importance of truth and news. It brings home the reality of the suppression of free media in a world in which we seem to have an increasing number of authoritarian Governments, more restrictions on media and reporting, and a greater challenge to democracy. There is a lot more to being a democracy than holding elections, and the ability of people to speak truth to power, to challenge Governments with information that they do not want to hear, and to tell their stories is increasingly important. We have to acknowledge the fact that democracy is in retreat in many parts of the world. The first sign of that retreat is the suppression of the free press, which is why our ability to discuss that today in this House is so important.
The debate may last until 11 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than 10.27 am, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. Damian Collins will have two or three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. Until 10.27 am, we are in Back-Bench time. Five very distinguished Back Benchers are seeking to contribute. I do not wish to impose a time limit, but if everybody keeps themselves to about eight minutes, everybody will have an equal share of the debate. The individual who will lead by example is Kenny MacAskill.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). His speech was not just wide-ranging, but remarkably interesting and erudite. I congratulate him on bringing all those aspects to our attention, and I concur with him.
We are in difficult times, and it is important that we hold power to account so that the truth will out. To do so, we need to ensure that those who seek to expose it—often benevolently, and certainly under difficult circumstances—are protected. That is why I pay tribute to those whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I would also put on record the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was sadly murdered by Israeli Defence Forces not that long ago. I was glad to see on Al Jazeera at breakfast time this morning that the matter is being pursued by the news organisation at the International Criminal Court.
The comments I want to make relate to our own country because we are not immune—either in the UK or, indeed, in Scotland. We are in a better position with regard to what is happening in Israel with the Palestinians and those who seek to report on that, and we are in a better position, obviously, with regard to what is happening in Ukraine, but we are by no means a paragon of virtue and we must ensure that we uphold the standards here, which brings me to the case of Julian Assange. I know that others will be commenting on it. The case is important because Mr Assange has brought power to account. He has exposed war crimes, as well as a lot of other malevolent actions—not simply by the United States of America, but by other Governments, including our own, but also, as I will go on to describe, the Government of Sweden.
I read with interest the book, which I think all MPs were sent, by Nils Melzer, “The Trial of Julian Assange”. I did not know of Mr Melzer before that, but he is the UN special rapporteur on torture. He narrated his journey to his conclusions about Julian Assange, and spoke out vehemently against what had happened. I share his position.
When I first heard of Julian Assange, I was surprised. There was reporting of a sexual misdemeanour in Sweden, a country I know well. One of my best friends in Edinburgh was the Swedish consul general, who I still keep in touch with although he has returned to Sweden. My son studied for two years in Gothenburg—not at the Chalmers University, which is a legacy of Scottish immigrants, but at the University of Gothenburg. I was and remain a big fan of Swedish social democracy, and indeed of Olof Palme. Surely this could not have happened in Sweden. Surely Sweden would not be involved in anything that was duplicitous or wrong. The sad thing is that it was. Clearly, Sweden has now exonerated and the investigation of Mr Assange there has come to an end. I have to draw the conclusion that Mr Assange exposed the fact that the Swedish security services were narrating that they were doing things and co-operating with the USA in a manner that their Government did not know about and probably would not have approved of, which may have had something to do with it.
What occurred with regard to Mr Assange in Sweden was shameful, and the United Kingdom is being both supine and sadly complicit in his return to the United States. He has committed no offence in the US other than to expose its war crimes. The US has given an assurance that it will not execute Mr Assange, but we know from the attitude of the US that he is unlikely to see the light of day from a federal prison if he is sent there, and given his current state of health he is unlikely to survive. It is simply unacceptable that we should have had the ongoing UK Government collusion, through the Ecuadorian embassy, with the US, and indeed even the US contemplating a hit job—to put it in its parlance—upon Mr Assange in this country.
Equally, we have to challenge some of the media reporting in this country. I, too, was shocked when I saw Mr Assange looking like some wild man of Borneo, being brought out of the Ecuadorian embassy. That did challenge people’s assumptions about who this person could be—somebody so dishevelled and who could appear like that. How could anybody possibly have any faith or trust in him?
Only when I read the book did I realise that Mr Assange had been detained, that the Ecuadorian Government had changed, that their attitude had changed, and that they had refused to allow in any cleaning equipment, as well as refusing him access to scissors or shaving items. Mr Assange looked like that, not because he chose to appear in such a way, but because he was deliberately set up so that when he was forced out of the Ecuadorian embassy his looks would leave people aghast and turn them against him. That was deliberate manipulation of the media, which is just as bad as a failure to report the truth.
I am conscious of time. I would have liked to say that my own country was exempt. I served for 20 years as a defence agent in Scotland and was proud of Scotland’s distinctive criminal justice system, and indeed its legal system. I also served for almost eight years as Justice Secretary, but something has gone fundamentally wrong, not with regard to Julian Assange, but with the situation of Craig Murray.
Craig Murray has spent almost six months in a Scottish prison for a reporting offence, while others who did similarly were not punished or even brought before the court. I shall leave that matter aside, as Craig Murray will seek to raise it with courts in Europe as appeal in Scotland is precluded, but the logic of Lady Dorrian, the presiding judge, in the actions taken by the prosecutors in Scotland was fundamentally wrong. They took the view that the mainstream media were all perfect—given what I have mentioned about Mr Assange, I have to wonder about that—but that bloggers were in a different category and should be treated differently. As the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, we are in a changing world. There are obviously issues with Twitter and social media platforms, with anonymous sources. The points made about those who post anti-vax content are quite correct; such material cannot be given any basis, support or substance. However, Mr Assange was quite clear in his facts. They were checked; everything was there. Mr Murray was doing something not dissimilar to what others had done, and yet he was singled out and picked on.
Her ladyship seemed to be suggesting that no cut or guarantee could be given, and that somehow the mainstream press were to be protected. Given that most incidents of people seeking recompense through claims for damages have involved the mainstream press, not bloggers such as Mr Murray and Mr Assange, that raises questions.
There has to be acceptance that society moves on. Just over 100 years ago, papers were closed down by the British Government because they were viewed as subversive during world war one. They became mainstream, because the Independent Labour party was elected to power. The paper that was the voice of the Independent Labour party was subscribed to by my parents. The logic of Lady Dorrian would be that that paper could not be a legitimate enterprise because it was not part of the mainstream press. It was legitimate almost immediately after the two weeks that it had been closed down. It had been legitimate because it had been bought by many before then.
Things move on and we live in a world where people do not buy newspapers. I say that with some sadness, as I am a fan of paid papers, and write for them. People go to online sites, and those who write for online sites and are legitimate—not the chancers putting up disinformation —require protection. It is right to challenge this situation. We must ensure we protect the media and truth throughout the world, but we must look to ourselves. The case of Mr Assange is a shame upon the United Kingdom, and the case of Craig Murray is a shame upon the current Government and judiciary in Scotland.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate, on the second attempt, after Prorogation got in the way last time. As he said, we had this debate last year, when a great number of concerns were expressed. Since then, the freedom and safety of journalists have deteriorated markedly. The World Press Freedom Day global conference this year set the theme of journalism under digital siege. Sadly, since then, it is no longer under digital siege. Journalists are being killed simply trying to do their job, while displaying enormous courage in doing so.
The good news is that last year I lamented the fact that the United Kingdom was 33rd on the list of countries for press freedom, when I said we should be doing much better. I am pleased that this year we have been ranked at number 24. To some extent, that is not because of dramatic improvement in this country, although there has been improvement. It is more due to the disastrous deterioration in a large number of countries across the world.
I want to highlight some of the things we have done in this country. I was responsible for drawing up the national action plan for the safety of journalists, which has now been emulated in a number of countries. We talked to journalists, the National Union of Journalists, the Society of Editors, the News Media Association, the police, the prosecuting authorities and campaigning organisations, such as Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship, to draw up a strategy to improve the safety of journalists in the UK. We also issued a call for evidence, which had 360 responses and showed that a high proportion had encountered threats, violence or intimidation. One in three female journalists in the UK do not feel safe doing their job.
There is clearly still work to do, but measures are being taken. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s comments about the Online Safety Bill. It is an important measure, but we need to make sure that legitimate journalistic content is protected in the Bill. I welcome the measures already taken, but I think more could be done. I also strongly welcome the measure the Government are considering to counter SLAPPs—strategic lawsuits against public participation—which are used by rich oligarchs to try to suppress investigative journalism. I also welcome the measures to establish the digital markets unit, which, as my hon. Friend rightly says, will seek to try and right the balance between the big tech platforms and the news organisations on which they feed but to which they give little remuneration.
The UK’s record is generally good. I am also proud that this country was one of the founders of the Media Freedom Coalition across the world, with 50 countries now signed up to the global pledge. I lead the UK delegation to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly. We will meet for the annual conference in Birmingham next month and I am delighted that the motion I have tabled on the safety of journalists will be debated there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe was right in saying that there are a large number of countries where journalism is quite a dangerous profession. In many cases, journalists have suffered intimidation, violence, imprisonment or sometimes even death. I want to concentrate on two countries in particular. The first is Ukraine, where journalists are displaying incredible bravery. My hon. Friend was quite right to name the eight who have sadly been killed during the course of the conflict. However, it is not just since the Russian invasion that journalists have been under threat.
I want to highlight one organisation, called Ukrayinska Pravda, or Ukrainian Truth, which was set up by two journalists in 2000. Since then, it has expanded and recently published a leaked list of more than 100,000 names of Russian military personnel inside Ukraine, as well as inventories of oligarchs’ yachts. It has fought corruption in that country. I want to put on record that the news organisation was founded by two people, Olena Prytula and Georgiy Gongadze, to expose corruption. In September 2000, Gongadze disappeared. Two months later, his beheaded body was discovered in farmland near Kiyv. Prytula was urged to flee. She did not; she carried on and established a relationship with another journalist, Pavel Sheremet. In July 2016, he too was murdered—assassinated when her car exploded while he was driving. Journalists have been working in Ukraine against corruption and against the Russian influence for a number of years. In doing so, they have too often paid the price with their lives.
The other country where media freedom has now almost been extinguished in its entirety is Russia itself. We know through Justice for Journalists that there were something like 24 attacks on journalists in the last few years, as well as 78 non-physical attacks, and Russia has now passed new laws that make it almost impossible for legitimate journalism to take place. It is now a crime even to describe what is happening in Ukraine as a war, and journalists are being imprisoned. As a result, independent journalism has been snuffed out. The Russian people are denied the ability to access the truth, because at the same time, Russia has closed down access to international social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, with the result that Russian people are dependent entirely on state-run and state-controlled media.
Most recently, Russia has retaliated against the work of independent journalists seeking to expose the truth of what is going on. I am one of the Members of this House—I have no doubt that others in this debate are also included—who are on the list of parliamentarians who have been sanctioned by Russia and are no longer allowed to visit the country. That list has now been extended to include 29 British journalists, and I have no doubt that Richard Sharp, Tim Davie, Clive Myrie, Nick Robinson and Orla Guerin will be almost flattered to find that they are on that list, in the same way that we almost regard it as a badge of honour to have been identified by Russia as people who speak out against the appalling abuses that are taking place in that country and which they are inflicting on Ukraine. It is not just the BBC but Cathy Newman of Channel 4, Sophy Ridge of Sky, John Witherow, Chris Evans and Kath Viner: some of the most distinguished journalists in Britain are all now banned, like ourselves, from visiting Russia.
I fear that media freedom is suffering very seriously across the world, but no more so than in Russia and Ukraine. The purpose of the debate is to cast a spotlight on that, and I hope that we will continue to do so each year as long as those abuses take place.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing a debate to mark World Press Freedom Day 2022, albeit a little delayed by Prorogation last month.
A lot has happened in the world over the past year, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. For those stories and many more, if we are interested we have a wealth of detail at our fingertips on mobile phones, laptops, physical newspapers and magazines on almost any issue. Whether light-hearted, serious, international or closer to home, there will be a series of articles available to bring readers the story.
It can be easy to forget the work that goes into each article—the research, investigation and writing itself. More than that, journalists may put themselves in great danger to report a story—often, the stories of the greatest importance that most need bringing into the light of day for public consumption. I want to speak about a woman who paid the ultimate price in the name of journalism. It is still a largely male-dominated field and the achievements of women in the industry are no small success. This story feels quite important in the light of the current situation in Ukraine. I have said before that the crimes of Putin or the Russian state must not be unfairly attributed to every Russian citizen: this story highlights the power of Russian journalists perfectly, should they choose to use it.
In addition to her career as a journalist, Anna Politkovskaya was a dedicated human rights activist. She made her name covering Russian political events, most notably during the second Chechen war. Her reporting of what was happening in Chechnya was award-winning, highlighting many human rights abuses by Russian military forces and the pro-Putin regime. She painted a picture of the brutal conflict and the atrocious acts both throughout the war and after it—torture, abductions and murders. She was highly critical of Putin and the federal security service in Russia, foreseeing how unchecked power would worsen freedoms and human rights in the state. She urged western Governments to consider how they welcomed Putin’s involvement in the war on terror in the aftermath of 9/11. She exposed high levels of corruption in his Administration.
Anna’s work was groundbreaking, but her career was not without difficulties. She was blacklisted from Kremlin news conferences, the target of a campaign of death threats and was victim of a poisoning on a trip to negotiate a hostage situation, in an attempt to prevent her reporting. In 2001, while investigating a story in Chechnya, Anna was detained, beaten and humiliated by Russian troops, before being subjected to a mock execution. I cannot imagine the terror she must have felt but, a resilient woman, Anna did not let it show.
Anna was assassinated on 7 October 2006. She was found dead in the lift in her block of flats, having been shot several times at close range. Most likely it was a contract killing, but no one has ever been held to account for it. Anna’s desk at Novaya Gazeta, the outlet she worked for, was never re-allocated. Instead, it became a shrine and a memorial to an incredible woman. Her legacy has inspired the next generation of female journalists and truth seekers in Russia. Anna’s bravery and that of women like her—Lyra McKee, Marie Colvin and so many others who paid a similar price—is commendable.
In the UK, we might feel we have excellent practices when it comes to press freedom, and we do have it better than many others, but the UK ranked only 33rd in the 2021 world press freedom index, putting us firmly in the yellow category of satisfactory, but definitely with room for a lot of improvement.
As other Members have raised, last week the Home Secretary ordered the extradition of Julian Assange to the US—a decision that has been widely criticised. There are real questions about what that means for press freedom. I understand that Mr Assange has some time to appeal, but while he exercises that right, he remains detained in the high-security Belmarsh prison, despite not being a violent or high-risk offender.
Strategic lawsuits against public participation are a mechanism used against journalists, media outlets, whistle blowers and academics, as a bully tactic to prevent publication or remove publicly available information. They are open to abuse in order to censor matters of public interest. Several states in the US have already removed SLAPPs, with campaigns for federal legislation under way. The EU is considering its options. I would like to see the UK set a gold standard for journalistic integrity and press freedom, and learn from nations such as Norway and Finland, which sit right at the top of the index. I hope the Minister will be able to speak to how that might be done.
While there might be some room for growth here at home, that does not stop us from using our voices to advocate for greater press freedoms in the countries that need it most. There are currently at least 127 journalists detained in China—it is the largest detainer of journalists in the world. According to statistics from Reporters Without Borders, seven reporters and one media assistant have been killed in Ukraine this year. Let us not forget the contributions of those journalists: Maks Levin; Oksana Baulina; Brent Renaud; Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova; Pierre Zakrzewski; Evgeny Sakun; and Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff. They lost their lives ensuring the world would see what was happening on the ground.
I thank the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for setting the scene so well, as well as all the other Members who have contributed so far and those who will follow. I look forward to hearing the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and also the Minister’s response. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. How important World Press Freedom Day is; it is a day on behalf of those who have had their human rights abused and been subject to persecution. The APPG that I am privileged to chair stands up for those with Christian beliefs, those with other beliefs and those with no beliefs. We believe very passionately that everyone across the world has a right to worship their god as they wish. It is the press across the world that highlight those things and enable us in this House to be aware of what takes place.
We speak for those in China, in Hong Kong—we have spoken about Hong Kong before—and in Myanmar, where we know that unbelievable atrocities are taking place because the press have highlighted them. In Iraq and Iran, the press have shown the marked persecution that takes place with the Yazidis and Baha’is. We had an event on Kashmir in this House last week—the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) attended—which I visited in 2018, and I know that it is the world press that highlight the issues there and make us aware of them. I hope that, if God spares me, I will get a chance to go back to Pakistan in September to understand where things are four years on. I think of where, across the world, Hindus and Muslims have their rights violated, as well as the Sunnis, the Sikhs—and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. There are so many examples. We know of those things because of the world press.
I want to put on record my thanks to the press for doing the job that they do. I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe, as well as others who have mentioned individuals who have stood up for press freedom across the world and have given their lives as a result. The roll of honour in Ukraine illustrates the impact that the commitment to world press freedom can have on the lives of those who stand up for it. These are really important matters.
I totally understand the concerns that members of the public have with the press—that, rather than sticking to reporting the news, members of the press sometimes seek to create a news agenda. I have seen that in operation more than I would like, and never more so than on the issue of Brexit. I am a Brexiteer—that is no secret. I know you are, too, Mr Hollobone; others present may or may not be. Nevertheless, any knee-jerk reaction to restrict press freedom can only be detrimental to the cause of democracy. I will defend and uphold that to the best of my ability and with all my energy and commitment.
I may not like the way the BBC reports the news. That is probably the truth. A recent example of that was when the BBC decided not to cover the 12 July parades in Northern Ireland live, as it has done in previous years. I think of the people who are elderly, vulnerable and housebound, who are unable to attend but very much look forward to the live coverage on 12 July. I wrote to the BBC Northern Ireland interim director, Adam Smyth, on the matter, but, I have to say, his answer was totally erroneous and wrong. He has not grasped or fully understood the issues. The BBC does sometimes fall down when it comes to fully illustrating the issues.
However, we are very pleased that the answer has come in the form of GB News, which has offered to cover the parades. It just so happens that Arlene Foster, former First Minister of Northern Ireland, features prominently on that channel. With the rise of more online options for news, perhaps the days of the press shaping the news, rather than reporting it, will come to an end. I am pleased that there is at least an answer on that matter.
The rise of the so-called online journalists, many of whom—I say this with great respect—seem to be either bullies or trolls, seems to call for some regulation. However, that must be all it is: regulation, not restriction. There is a fine line there. I am sure the Minister will give us some idea of the Department’s thoughts on that. We must ensure that those who identify as journalists and seek to live under the freedom of press banner also abide by the code of conduct that the press should be under. It is a delicate balance to find, but one that we must certainly take the time to find and get right.
We are living in a world that attempts to say, “If I hate your speech, it is hate speech,” but that is not always the way that I see it. I have a very clear point of view that is, in many cases, a religious and moral point of view. I strongly uphold and adhere to my point of view, and it is my right to have it. It is also somebody’s right to have a different opinion, but it is not their right to say that I am guilty of hate speech, just as I am not saying they are guilty of hate speech. It is about freedom. I absolutely refute the principle of “If I hate your speech, it is hate speech”; we must be careful with personal censorship. I must and will defend the right of the press to report as they choose, in so much as it is factual—even if, sometimes, it might be biased. It is about getting it right.
“Be careful with your words”—I have tried to follow that idea my whole life. Like all Members present, I try to pick my words carefully. Words can destroy, change the mood of a debate and turn into actions on the streets that we do not want. We must always be incredibly careful about what we say. Freedom for one is freedom for all. That is my opinion, and the opinion of all present. I know, certainly, that it is as clear in the mind of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East, as it is in mine. It is worth fighting to achieve that.
As chair of the APPG on international freedom of religion or belief, I am convinced that we need the world press and the freedom it has to give examples of how the world is and to report on countries and dictatorships and what those in power are doing against people of a different religion when they should not. For that reason, I am happy to support what the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe put forward. I want to put forward that point of view and have it on the record.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this crucial debate. It is always a pleasure to follow a speech by such an assiduous Member of Parliament as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I will confine my comments to the particular case raised in detail by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), and referred to by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). It is the case of a journalist who, as we hold this debate, is in Belmarsh maximum security prison, in our country, and who has been languishing there for a number of years: Julian Assange. On World Press Freedom Day, it would be strange not to reflect on a journalist who is in prison in our country—a political prisoner—when the Home Secretary has signed a warrant for his extradition to the United States of America where, because of his journalism, he could be incarcerated with sentence of up to 175 years.
Julian Assange exposed war crimes and human rights abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay that were carried out in our name. It is precisely because, as a journalist, he exposed those crimes, carried out in our name, that he is being extradited to the United States. That has a chilling effect, not only on Julian Assange, whose human rights have been abused—he has languished in Belmarsh prison, alongside convicted terrorists and dangerous people who have been convicted of very serious crimes—and his family, but on other journalists, because by choosing this course of action, powerful politicians in the United States and our own Home Secretary have sent a warning to journalists in our country and around the world. They have made an example of Julian Assange, so journalists who may come into possession of information, such as that revealed by Julian Assange about Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, may think, “If I reveal this as a journalist, what will happen to me? Will my fate be the same as the horrific fate of Julian Assange?” It is an act of intimidation by the US Government and our own Government, not only against Julian Assange but against other journalists, including budding journalists in our society and people growing up with the ambition to be journalists.
Julian Assange worked with The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El País. He was invited to our country by The Guardian newspaper. What he revealed was in the best traditions of journalism and whistleblowing, because it is really important that we know what is done in our name. That is part of the democratic function of journalism. Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists, the National Union of Journalists and Amnesty International have spoken out against the action taken against Julian Assange as a journalist. John Simpson, famous for his fantastic work over so many decades with the BBC, said:
“Journalists in Britain and elsewhere will be very worried by the decision to extradite Julian Assange to the US—both for his own well-being & for the precedent it creates for journalism worldwide.”
I am known for being on the left of this Parliament, but this is not an issue that is confined to concerns among those on the left. For example, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has spoken in detail about the case and said recently:
“Sadly I do not believe Mr Assange will get a fair trial. This extradition treaty needs to be rewritten to give British and American citizens identical rights, unlike now.”
Others from the world of journalism who do not share my politics—people such as Andrew Neil and Peter Hitchens—have spoken out against the decision, which should concern us all.
It is important to reflect upon the fact that Amnesty International has not raised concerns about this issue lightly. The secretary-general of Amnesty International has labelled the case “Politically motivated and unjustified” and said that it
“undermines press freedom, the rule of law, and the prohibition of torture.”
Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists, to which I referred earlier, along with press freedom groups Article 19, Index On Censorship and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, as well as our very own National Union of Journalists, issued a joint declaration, stating that Julian Assange
“is being prosecuted for exposing US rendition, unlawful killing and the subversion of the judiciary. And the UK government is allowing extradition proceedings to continue.”
The declaration makes the point that
“The prosecution of Julian Assange was a political decision taken by the Trump administration”,
and that it
“creates a dangerous legal precedent, allowing any journalist in Britain to be prosecuted and extradited.”
Even the executive editor of The Washington Post has felt compelled to comment on the case, saying that it is
“criminalising common practices in journalism that have long served the public interest.”
That should concern us all.
When we look at the extradition treaty that has been used to sign off the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States, we should be concerned about the fact that when it was brought to Parliament in the first place, assurances were given that the intention was to exclude extradition for political matters or for so-called political crimes. It was made clear in this place that that was the intention, so it seems to me and to others, including the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, that the spirit of that extradition treaty and the intention behind it have not been honoured by the Home Secretary’s decision to extradite Julian Assange.
At the end of the day, people have different views on Julian Assange as an individual—I view him as a hero who has exposed war crimes committed in our name; others take a different view—but people’s view of Julian Assange should not matter in relation to this issue. What matters is the implication for his human rights and the message that it sends to journalists around the world. If we believe in press freedom—as we do—and if we believe that journalism is not a crime and that exposing war crimes is not a crime, and if we want journalists to be able to practise their honourable trade without fear or favour, we should speak out against the extradition and speak out in favour of Julian Assange.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for once again securing this important debate on World Press Freedom Day. Every year it seems to get that bit more important.
Mantas Kvedaravičius, Oksana Baulina, Oleksandra Kuvshynova, Pierre Zakrzewski, Brent Renaud, Maks Levin and Yevhenii Sakun—war has always claimed the lives of those brave enough to report on it, and sadly Ukraine is no exception. The list of names of murdered journalists that I have just read out will unfortunately grow longer, as Vladimir Putin’s futile but deadly war continues.
In last year’s debate, we heard about journalist Roman Protasevich. He had been hauled off a plane by Belarusian forces. Sofia Sapega, his girlfriend, was arrested last month and faces trial behind closed doors for the crimes of “inciting social hatred” and “violence or threats”. She is 24 years of age and faces six years in a Belarusian prison—another victim of Lukashenko and his cowardly regime.
Outside Europe, the killing of journalists continues with the same wretched fervour. Juan Carlos Muñiz is the seventh journalist to be murdered in Mexico this year. Mexico is perhaps the most dangerous country for journalists to operate in that is not an actual warzone. The persecution of journalists is endemic there. In the 10 years since investigative reporter Regina Martínez was suffocated in her own home, 100 reporters have been killed in Mexico.
The reason why journalists are murdered, whether by oppressive regimes or criminal gangs, is always the same: fear—fear of the truths that they want to tell. There may be no more noble cause than pursuing the truth and rooting out corruption around the world, especially in cases of extreme and grave danger. In countries where journalists are persecuted, it is so important that the judiciary defends them. If the perpetrators of these crimes are given impunity, it can only embolden them.
UNESCO’s “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development” report states that
“85 percent of the world’s population experienced a decline in press freedom in their country”.
Britain, which sits at No. 33 in the world press freedom index, must do better both domestically and abroad. I would never wish to belittle horrific events abroad, but I caution the Minister and ask her to pass this on to the Prime Minister: every time politicians, leaders and Governments are equivocal with their use of the truth, it weakens our institutions.
I am happy to take that point on board. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that there is still vast room for improvement.
I commend journalists for their tireless work domestically in exposing criminality right at the heart of Government—in Downing Street. Regardless of how much politicians try to wiggle from the truth, journalists should keep pushing for it, even when those whose job it is to investigate criminality seem reluctant to do so.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), who is unfortunately unable to attend the debate. I wish to impart some of his sentiments, based on his vast journalistic experience. He has done a bit of foreign affairs correspondence and anchored some dramatic moments—none more memorable than the horrors of 9/11. He was on air when the twin towers were attacked and had to find the words to describe the unspeakable brutality and cruelty of the unfolding events. He said:
“I kept my cool, I think, during the hours of live broadcast, but I wept when I got home. Some of the images that we could not show that day, such as the people jumping from the towers, will be forever seared into my mind. However, my work has mostly been confined to political correspondence—a safe place for journalists, even at Westminster.”—[Official Report, 27 May 2021; Vol. 696, c. 203WH.]
There have been so many killings of journalists that it seems almost invidious to single out individuals, but we all remember Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times correspondent who was killed when Assad’s troops, who were almost certainly targeting her, shelled the building in Homs where she was sheltering as she covered the Syrian regime’s atrocities.
Perhaps not so well remembered is Scotsman Malcolm Rennie, from Barrhead near Glasgow. In 1975, he was tortured and shot by the Indonesian military in East Timor, alongside four Australian-based journalists. Campaigners claim that the UK Government were reluctant to look into the unlawful killings because of important arms sales to Indonesia. In the nearly four decades since, successive British Governments have tried to keep clear of the case, arguing that the murder of Malcolm Rennie and his colleagues is a matter for Australia to investigate. In those four decades, successive UK Governments—under both Tory and Labour leadership—have continued to supply the Indonesians with arms, such as Hawk jets, Alvis Scorpion tanks and other lethal warfare. Like Mr Rennie, each and every one of the journalists was brave and fearless. Armed with only a pen, microphone or camera, they were killed carrying out their duty: reporting the truth.
As we have heard, the threats to journalists take many forms. The spread of disinformation through social media and attacks on professional journalism are perhaps the most insidious new ways. The lies disseminated by the likes of Putin and Assad in order to spread disinformation about the murder of journalists and political opponents, to disguise their responsibility for chemical gas attacks and to blacken the name of—among others—the White Helmets are amplified online by the malevolent and the naive. Here today, as we honour the journalistic craft, I hope that whatever our politics, we parliamentarians resolve to affirm the right of journalists—whether at home or abroad—to scrutinise and examine, and to probe and uncover, without fear or favour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Hollobone. I want to start by thanking the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for securing such an important debate and for not giving up when the previous date was cancelled because of Prorogation. Freedom of the press is a right that we celebrate in our country, but sadly it is still severely limited across the world. In the hon. Member’s opening comments, he very appropriately remembered not only the journalists who have been killed for telling the truth about Russia in Ukraine, but others among the 29 journalists and two assistants who have been killed thus far this year. It is a tragedy.
The hon. Member mentioned the wealthy people using our British courts to try to silence journalists with whom they disagree—a shocking but true fact. He also mentioned the hollowing out of local and national media in the United Kingdom through the loss of advertising revenue, partly because of the rise of social media. He rightly said that the protection of journalistic content should be part of the Online Safety Bill, and I certainly support that. Finally, he mentioned something even more important: journalists who publish in their own names are truly accountable for what they write and are often exposed to the risks involved. The truth in news is vital to freedom and democracy.
We then heard from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) , who mentioned Shireen Abu Akleh, who I too will talk about shortly, and Julian Assange. He concentrated on Sweden’s treatment of Assange and his condemnation of Assange’s extradition to the United States, which was mentioned by other hon. Members as well. The hon. Member, who is the former Justice Secretary of Scotland, also mentioned Craig Murray, whom I have met, his treatment in Scotland and the media’s attitude.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), who talked about the achievements of so many women journalists in what is still a male-dominated profession. She made an important point. She mentioned the tragic story of Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered on 7 October 2006 in Moscow at the age of just 48—a brave woman journalist, who was murdered for what she published and the truth that she found and exposed. The hon. Member suggested that the UK should outlaw SLAPPs and also mentioned that 127 journalists are currently detained in China.
After that, we heard from my dear friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who as we know is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. He mentioned China, Hong Kong, Myanmar and the persecution of religious minorities and the journalists who expose those abuses. He said that we know about the persecution of religious minorities only because there is freedom of the press. When that is clamped down on, we no longer hear about the appalling abuses of religious minorities. He rightly said that any restriction of press freedom is an attack on democracy.
Then we heard from my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), who concentrated on the case of Julian Assange, currently in Belmarsh prison as a political prisoner. He mentioned the support for Assange from across the political spectrum and the condemnation of his extradition to the United States, speaking of its chilling effect on other journalists in the UK and around the world. He said that the Assange case was “an act of intimidation” against all journalists, and the fact that so many politicians and journalists, of all political views, condemned it said a lot about why what is happening to Assange is totally wrong.
Just last month, the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the disgraceful scenes at her funeral served as a stark reminder of the threats journalists face every single day and that many pay the ultimate price simply for doing their jobs. Shireen’s death was also an attack on the freedom of the press and the independence of journalists working around the world. As we have heard from right hon. and hon. Members today, it was sadly not an isolated incident. It is vital that the UK acts urgently to protect journalists who are increasingly under threat and puts diplomatic pressure on those who choose to violate their fundamental rights.
Today I shall focus my remarks on one of our country’s most influential institutions abroad: the BBC World Service, which reaches 465 million people every single week. It is a vital part of this country’s soft power and international influence. However, we have seen journalists at the BBC World Service in Russia and Ukraine under constant threat, with their journalistic freedoms severely limited. In the face of those threats, the United Kingdom must support the BBC in using its considerable influence to extend British values around the world. It is firmly in our interests to act.
The BBC has provided reliable information to the Russian people as Putin continues to wage his illegal and unprovoked war, which he claims to do in their name. We certainly welcome the £4.1 million in emergency funding provided to the BBC World Service so that it can continue its vital work in Ukraine and Russia, but that money took far too long to arrive. The UK must act far more urgently if we are to protect journalists abroad, particularly when we have such an important tool in Britain’s armoury against Putin’s misinformation.
The Russian public deserve to hear the truth about Putin’s illegal war. Whether they work for the BBC or not, the courageous journalists who report from some of the most dangerous areas of the world should not be threatened as a result of providing that service. The limiting of the BBC in Russia is part of a series of measures as part of which President Putin has weaponised his own laws to target independent journalists. The worrying amendments to the law on foreign agents, which expanded the grounds for designating individuals as “foreign agents”, was rightly condemned by the Venice Commission as constituting
“serious violations of basic human rights, including the freedoms of association and expression”.
It is not just Russia that has introduced restrictive legislation. We should apply diplomatic pressure to every country that seeks to undermine the work of journalists. Across Council of Europe member states, many journalists are detained as criminals, with the vast majority in Turkey. I urge the Minister to raise that at the earliest possible opportunity with her Turkish counterpart.
In Afghanistan, a ban on foreign media has formed part of the crackdown to prevent reporting from several media outlets. The Taliban’s attempt to censor the media has led to a huge reduction in the number of media organisations in the country. Will the Minister tell us whether the UK has any plans to help those organisations to continue to report from that country?
It is extremely disturbing that 98% of jailed journalists are local people imprisoned by their own Governments and that 70% of jailed journalists imprisoned globally were arrested on so-called anti-state charges, including, appallingly, terrorism. We all have to do more to bring such appalling repression to an end. Across the House, we must also put an end to the increase in dangerous rhetoric, with journalists who do not agree with one’s political opinion being labelled as enemies. That simply contributes to the problem, as we have seen not only in Turkey but across the world in countries as diverse as the United States and Iran.
The UK must play its part in protecting journalists who deliver high-quality, independent and accurate information to the public at home and abroad. It is completely unacceptable that journalists face so many threats, as we have heard from both sides of this room today. The freedom of the press is an essential part of any democracy, and we all have a responsibility to help to extend the freedoms we enjoy in this country to the rest of the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like other hon. Members, I will start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for securing this really important debate. I am grateful to him and all the other members of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom for their dedicated commitment to this cause.
Thriving independent journalism is one of the cornerstones of democracy but, as such, journalists are a common target for those who want to disrupt, disturb and devalue it. Reporters across the world are being intimidated, arrested or even killed, but now more than ever we need journalists to speak truth to power, to counter misinformation and to highlight wrongdoing. The UK is, as ever, a vocal champion of media freedom and of the journalists who do this important work. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) reminded us, we must also always remember the camera operators and others behind the scenes who support the journalists in this vital work.
Like many of us here today, I want first to discuss the appalling and tragic situation in Ukraine. There is an old adage that the first casualty of war is truth, and Mr Putin’s war is built entirely on untruths. The Kremlin has used disinformation and propaganda to create a false pretext for its invasion, to obscure the truth of what is going on on the ground and to cover up potential war crimes. Despite the clear dangers that they face day after day and night after night, brave journalists are putting their lives on the line to expose the truth of Russia’s abhorrent actions. Elected officials, civil society activists, journalists and religious leaders in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine have disappeared. Russian forces have attacked and abducted journalists. We have seen credible reports of torture.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) reminded us of the names of some of the individuals who have laid down their lives in Ukraine. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, 12 journalists have lost their lives since the war began.
Russia’s abuses also continue at home. The Kremlin’s brutal crackdown on independent media and dissenting voices continues, with journalists who refuse to stick to the script facing up to 15 years in prison. It is vital that the facts, and alternative perspectives to Kremlin propaganda, remain available. We will continue to support Russian independent media, including by providing them with the tools they need to continue their work. On 10 March, with our partners in the Media Freedom Coalition, we issued a statement condemning the brutal crackdown and calling on Russia to respect journalists’ rights. We are giving the BBC World Service more than £4 million in emergency funding for its Ukrainian and Russian language services. We have extended our existing £9 million project to support media freedom in Ukraine with an extra £1 million of urgent support. We have provided journalists on the ground with protective gear and medical equipment, to help them to work as safely as possible. We are also using our programme funding to support media freedom in Belarus, where dozens of journalists, bloggers and media workers are under arrest or in jail, and websites of reputable media outlets have been declared extremist by the Belarusian regime.
Unfortunately, as many Members present have noted, these attacks on media freedom are also happening in many other countries. Like the many colleagues who have mentioned it today, we were all appalled to see the recent death of the Palestinian-American al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while reporting on the west bank and to see those really awful scenes at her funeral. Her death is a tragedy, and the UK has joined calls for an impartial and transparent investigation.
At this sad time, I would also like to reflect on the disappearance of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira in the Amazon region of Brazil. I offer my thanks to all those who have been involved in the search-and-rescue operation to find them. I would like to send my condolences to Dom’s family, whom we continue to support. I pay tribute to both men and to their commitment to improving our understanding of the Amazon, its people and the challenges currently faced there. Both men have left a strong legacy of defending and supporting the rights of indigenous people in Brazil.
Across the world, from 2016 to the end of 2021, 455 journalists were killed either in the course of their work or because of it; almost nine out of 10 of these killings are unresolved. The voices of many thousands more have been stifled by threats, harassment, online censorship and vague security laws that outlaw criticism of authoritarian regimes. Every day our network of embassies and high commissioners works to protect media freedoms through engagement and lobbying, as well as by offering direct support for threatened journalists. Much of that work, quite rightly, happens away from the spotlight, but we do also take a strong public role in promoting media freedoms around the world.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) asked me about some specific countries. In Turkey, we have concerns about media freedom, and we have long encouraged the country to protect freedom of expression—it is essential to the long-term health of democracy. Our diplomats engage in regular dialogue with civil society, and regularly attend high-profile trials, including those of journalists and human rights defenders. We do that alongside some EU member states and other like-minded missions as a sign of how firmly we support the individuals affected.
In Afghanistan—such a challenging country—we are concerned about the increasing restrictions on freedom of expression. Censorship and self-censorship have worsened. There have been detentions and threats against journalists, human rights defenders and civil society activists. We are working with international partners to hold those responsible to account, including, in March, through the renewal of the mandate for the UN mission in Afghanistan to strengthen human rights monitoring and reporting functions. Afghanistan’s membership of the Media Freedom Coalition is also under consideration.
Back in 2019, we co-founded the Media Freedom Coalition with Canada to speak out against attacks and to hold to account those who harm journalists. The coalition has highlighted problems in so many countries, from Myanmar to Belarus. Alongside UNESCO, it set up the global media defence fund, to which the UK has contributed £3 million over the past three years. During that time the fund has supported more than 3,000 journalists, 490 lawyers and over 120 civil society organisations.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe clearly pointed out, today’s media face other threats that we must urgently address. Global newspaper advertising revenue has fallen by half in the last five years, and many outlets are closing, leaving news deserts, where there are no local sources of trustworthy news. Through our support to the BBC World Service and others, the UK has given more than £500 million in the past five years to support independent journalism and the free flow of information across the world. We will be supporting the BBC World Service with more than £90 million per year over the next three years so that it can continue that work. During our presidency of the G7 we secured strong commitments to improve the assistance G7 members give to independent media globally.
To have any influence abroad, we also need to set an example at home. We have made good progress in our national action plan for the safety of journalists since it was launched over a year ago. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) mentioned, the UK has risen nine places in the global press freedom index since last year, to number 24 out of the 180 countries in the 2022 index. The index is a valuable tool for evaluating media freedom around the world, and tackling the threats faced by journalists.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, and others, mentioned the new Online Safety Bill. It will create new protections for news publishers and journalistic content when shared online on other platforms. That is important, so I thank Members for mentioning the Bill. Many Members also voiced their concerns about SLAPPs. Recent events have accelerated the need for action to ensure oligarchs and anyone who wishes to silence free speech cannot abuse the rule of law. The Government are absolutely determined to move quickly on that issue. We have already consulted on reforms that are designed to tackle the challenges SLAPPs pose to free speech and to our legal system. We are considering the most appropriate reforms to pursue as a matter of urgency.
I conclude by quoting the great American journalist Walter Cronkite, who once said:
“Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”
Recent events in countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Myanmar and others mentioned today reaffirm the vital role that independent journalism plays and the real threats reporters face every day. I think I can speak for all Members here today and across the House of Commons when I thank all the courageous journalists working so hard to bring the truth to light. The Government will continue to support them and stand up for them and their colleagues around the world.
I thank the Minister and all right hon. and hon. Members for their participation in this excellent debate. A number of cases have been raised relating to media freedom and the suppression of journalism around the world, and it is right that those cases have been heard in the debate today.
I do not wish to repeat what Members have already said, but in closing I note that since the debate we had last year and today’s debate, the Nobel Committee awarded its annual peace prize to two journalists: Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa. It was reported this morning that Mr Muratov has sold his Nobel peace prize medal for £80 million and will donate that money to charities supporting the victims of the war in Ukraine.
Maria Ressa, whom it has been my pleasure to meet on several occasions, gave evidence to the Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill last year and I close with the remarks she made in her Nobel lecture last year, when she collected her peace prize. She summed up the essence of what we have been discussing when she said:
“Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy”.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered World Press Freedom Day 2022.