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Press Freedom

Volume 803: debated on Monday 8 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to promote press freedom and the safety of journalists globally.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, declaring my interest as deputy chair of the Telegraph Media Group and my other interests listed in the register.

My Lords, media freedom is vital to open societies. Journalists must be able to investigate and report without undue interference. The United Kingdom has taken a number of steps to promote press freedom and the safety of journalists globally. We are monitoring individual cases of concern around the world and working with international partners on how best to support media freedom despite the challenges and restrictions of Covid-19.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but across the world—from Mexico to Hungary to Beijing—attacks on journalists and publishers are reaching unprecedented levels. In many cases these are inspired by the disgraceful actions of the White House, which have led to attacks on journalists in the US. Some 64 other countries, according to Reporters Without Borders, are using Covid-19 to chill free speech and bully journalists, often using criminal sanctions. Does my noble friend agree that it is now urgent that there is co-ordinated international action to ensure that journalists have proper legal protection, including an end to impunity, and for the Media Freedom Coalition, which the UK Government helped to establish and now seems to be missing in action, to act forcefully and without delay, including with the publication of a national action plan?

My Lords, while paying tribute to my noble friend’s work on the Media Freedom Coalition, I do not agree with the premise that it is missing in action. It has been quite active; indeed, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary had discussions on world media freedom on 3 May with German, French and Dutch counterparts. We continue to work very closely with our key partner, Canada, on that initiative. My noble friend will also be aware of the vital work of the independent High-level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, which is convened by special envoy Amal Clooney and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger. They are doing very important work and produced a first report on this issue on 13 February.

My Lords, the Courage in Journalism award is awarded each year to a journalist who has died getting important stories out of dangerous places. Outside of a war zone, Mexico is the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. Since 2000, 150 journalists in Mexico have been murdered and many more have simply disappeared, assumed dead. What action are Her Majesty’s Government taking to bring pressure to bear to increase protection from violence for journalists in countries such as Mexico?

My noble friend raises an important point about the protection of journalists. She will be aware of UNESCO’s annual reporting. In 2019, 57 journalists and media workers were killed, and while this is a decline on previous year, it is 57 too many. She raises the important issue of ensuring that we raise media freedom and the protection of journalists in particular, and I assure her that we do this in all our interactions and that it remains a key priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the recent arrest in Egypt of prominent author Ahdaf Soueif, the imprisonment of members of her family, and the continued detention of poet Galal El-Behairy and many others are events of international concern? Will the FCO draw more attention to these human rights violations and the poor treatment of writers, editors and journalists in and outside Egyptian prisons?

My Lords, the noble Earl raises an important issue. I assure all noble Lords that we raise the importance of media freedom in all our interactions with Egypt. I recall my last visit to Egypt in my capacity as Human Rights Minister, and that was high up the agenda. Most recently, my right honourable friend the Minister for the Middle East raised it in ministerial dialogue in March, including the specific cases the noble Earl highlighted.

My Lords, we are used to autocracies suppressing freedom of expression, and we expect democracies to support freedom of expression. It is a matter of great sadness when a country with a great democratic tradition and a great history of freedom of the press such as the United States goes the way of autocracies and physically attacks journalists who are doing their job.

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that we raise this issue of media freedom in bilateral conversations as well as through multilateral fora, and we will continue to do so. If you are a democracy, of course, the responsibility becomes ever greater. The freedom of the press and protection of the media is a fundamental pillar of good governance and democracy.

When did the Government last raise the harassment of BBC Persian staff with Iran or on the international stage?

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that this is very high on our agenda in our direct bilateral conversations with Iran, and we have also had that discussion at various levels within the Human Rights Council. Iran is very much a state that suppresses media freedom and indeed other human rights, and it continues to be a country of concern in the human rights report that we issue every year.

My Lords, will my noble friend acknowledge the excellent work of the Commonwealth Journalists Association in this field? I acknowledge my interest as president of the Royal Commonwealth Society. He will be well aware that some of the most dreadful attacks on journalists, and indeed murders, have occurred in Commonwealth countries. As we are now, I presume, still in the chair of the Commonwealth, will my noble friend undertake with his colleagues to put maximum pressure on Commonwealth organisations and the Commonwealth Secretariat to encourage and support the work of the Commonwealth Journalists Association?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we will continue in our capacity as chair-in-office until and when the Kigali CHOGM takes place, and that has been confirmed. On the importance of Commonwealth countries standing up for press and media freedom, I agree with him and assure him that, both within the context of the Commonwealth and in our bilateral exchanges with Commonwealth countries, media freedom is very much a key issue.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of recent reports from Colombia that the army has been illegally compiling secret files on journalists, containing personal information on their contacts, homes, families and other private information? This undermines the peace process and I hope that the Minister will condemn it. Will he also tell the House what progress has been made since January this year, when, in the context of another question on journalists’ safety, I asked him whether equivalent protection could be negotiated for interpreters who work with journalists, especially in conflict zones? He said then that discussions were taking place on the proposal for a Security Council resolution, and I would be grateful if he could update the House.

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second question, obviously, given the focus on Covid-19, we have not been able to make progress on that Security Council resolution to the extent that I would have liked, as Minister for the UN. However, I assure her that our work in this respect will continue, and I will shortly have a discussion with our acting representative in New York on how we can make further progress. I will write to her regarding the question she raised concerning Colombia.

My Lords, UNESCO and the Netherlands have set a new date in October for hosting the World Press Freedom Conference. Will the UK participate with a high-level delegation, and what consideration has been given to the International Federation of Journalists’ draft UN convention on the safety and independence of journalists and other media professionals?

My Lords, I can confirm that we will look to participate in the next media freedom conference—with Canada and other key partners—and to have high-level representation in that respect. On the resolution that has been passed, we certainly look to that and indeed other representations we receive on strengthening collaboration and collective action in order to protect journalists and ensure media freedom around the world.

I know that the Minister agrees that the ability of journalists to do their job unhindered by threats of or the actual experience of violence is a vital part of our democracy. The UK embassy in Washington has raised concerns about the conduct of US police officers. Is there not a greater concern: the conduct of a US President who describes journalists as enemies of the people? Does the Minister agree that those in positions of power should support journalists, not undermine them?

My Lords, I cannot speak for the US Administration or the US President; however, I can speak for Her Majesty’s Government. Our support for the global media coalition and the work we are doing in this respect, as a key priority within a human rights context, underlines our commitment. On the noble Baroness’s latter remarks, of course I agree with her. As a democracy, we are proud of our support for journalists and media freedom, and that will continue to be the case under the current Government.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed; I thank all noble Lords. That concludes the first ever Oral Questions Hybrid Sitting.

Sitting suspended.