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Protection of Media Freedom

Volume 826: debated on Thursday 8 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect media freedom around the world.

My Lords, since launching a global media freedom campaign in 2019, the Government have continued to champion media freedom and healthy information ecosystems more broadly. As part of this work, we co-founded the Media Freedom Coalition and helped launch a new global media defence fund. The Minister of State for Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and United Nations reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to media freedom in November at a conference on the safety of journalists to mark the 10th anniversary of the UN plan of action on the safety of journalists.

My Lords, I acknowledge the work that the Government has been doing on media freedom and I am very grateful for it, but around the world, journalists are detained simply for trying to do their job in an objective way. In Myanmar, for example, journalists have been killed and we have seen a wave of arrests, including of Htet Htet Khine, Sithu Aung Myint and Nyein Nyein Aye. Will the Minister join me in condemning the unjust detention of journalists and tell me what work the Government are doing to help protect media freedom in Myanmar?

My noble friend is absolutely right. I believe it is still the case today that on average, every five days around the world a journalist is killed for bringing information to the public. With 80 journalists and media workers killed already this year and the number of journalists jailed for their work at an all-time high, this continues to be a real priority for us. The military in Myanmar has arrested over 100 journalists and killed at least three, and many others have been subject to torture, extreme violence and so on. It has also shut down almost all independent media in the country. Of course, we wholeheartedly and completely condemn the military’s behaviour and its suppression of opposition voices, including journalists and civil society activists, since the coup last year. We are providing emergency funding to help journalists and media organisations continue to report what is happening in Myanmar, and we are working with the Media Freedom Coalition and international partners to call out the military suppression of media freedom and the targeting of journalists.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that journalists’ rights and human rights begin at home, so how does the chairman of the Conservative Party issuing a SLAPP order and making use of it to shut down discussion of his own affairs help matters? Will the Government support the amendment to the Public Order Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, which we will come to next week, to protect such journalism?

My Lords, SLAPPs are clearly an abuse of the legal system, involving the use of legal threats and litigation to silence journalists, campaigners and public bodies who investigate wrongdoing in the public interest. The Government launched a call for evidence on SLAPPs earlier this year, and their response to it was published in July, setting out proposed reforms to tackle SLAPPs. These include primary legislative reforms to introduce a statutory definition of a SLAPP, create an early dismissal process for SLAPPs, and introduce a cost-protection scheme via secondary legislation.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a producer of a new series on Ukraine. Jimmy Lai is a British national who was owner of Hong Kong’s biggest independent media outlet, Next Digital. He was arrested and imprisoned for fraud and now faces another trial for breaking Hong Kong’s national security law. His lawyers say they have been harassed and threatened, and there is a chance that the trial will be moved to the mainland. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to help Mr Lai?

My Lords, on 7 February the UK co-led a Media Freedom Coalition statement, signed by 21 international partners, calling out attacks on media and press freedoms, including the raid on, associated arrests of journalists of, and closure of Stand News in Hong Kong. China committed to uphold freedom of the press in the Sino-British joint declaration and made a guarantee to that effect in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. However, as noble Lords know, China remains in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the joint declaration.

My Lords, what assistance is being given to BBC Persian, which is under such pressure from the Iranian regime, especially given the current protests in Iran?

My Lords, reports of the arbitrary arrest, detention and harassment, mainly of Iranian journalists and media workers and their families, are a huge concern to the UK. The harassment of journalists has also been directed at those covering the Islamic Republic of Iran from abroad. Of course, we condemn the judicial persecution of family members of employees and ex-employees of BBC Persian and the many individuals who have had their assets frozen and have been banned from leaving the country, in breach of Iran’s ICCPR obligations. In November this year the Foreign Secretary summoned the Iranian representative and made it clear that we do not tolerate threats to life and intimidation of any kind towards journalists or any individual living here in the UK.

My Lords, this is a shocking revelation: that journalists who are reporting here about events in Iran are now suffering harassment—detailed harassment. What are the Government doing to ensure that the Home Office and the Foreign Office work in concert to ensure that these sorts of events do not happen? It is bad enough having to defend journalists in totalitarian regimes, but it is outrageous that journalists in this country reporting on events in Iran are suffering such harassment. We have to put an end to this.

The noble Lord is exactly right and what he says entirely echoes the view of the UK Government. It is outrageous that anyone, particularly journalists reporting on a foreign country, should be subjected to any kind of intimidation—here in the UK or indeed anywhere. There is continuous communication and co-operation between the Foreign Office and the Home Office, as noble Lords would expect, on this and many other issues. Any steps taken by the Foreign Secretary have been taken in line with the Home Office.

My Lords, following China’s banning of the BBC World News channel, what advice has been given, as has been given in countries such as Russia, on the use of VPNs and ways around the ban? The importance of broadcasting accurate reporting into China is increasing as we face so many crackdowns on minority groups.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate mentions Russia and China, which are the source of much of the activity and agitation we have seen against a free press, both in those countries and in other countries as a consequence of their actions. The Russian Government’s brutal suppression of freedom of expression and of the media generally is clear evidence of Putin’s desperation to conceal the truth of this war from his own people. We are doing everything we can to expose the Kremlin playbook, including through the new government information cell, detailing how Russia is using the four Ds of disinformation, calling out its lies and contrasting them with verified facts. Through our unprecedented package of sanctions against Russia, we have targeted peddlers of Russian disinformation who push Kremlin propaganda. The Government have already directly sanctioned state media organisations, targeting the Kremlin-funded TV-Novosti, which owns RT, and Rossiya Segodnya, which controls the Sputnik news agency.

My Lords, can my noble friend bear in mind that while nations around the world should protect their own media freedoms—and they do not make a very good job of it—we in this country have a unique opportunity, through our membership of the Commonwealth, and through the Commonwealth Journalists Association and a variety of other Commonwealth press organisations, to press for media freedoms throughout a third of the world’s population, which is not a bad start?

My noble friend is right, and we do. The UK continues to prioritise funding for media freedom programmes, which have helped journalists all around the world. We have provided over half a billion pounds in ODA to media and free flow of information over the past five years. That includes support for the BBC World Service, which we debated a few days ago, and our £3 million pledge over five years to UNESCO’s global media defence fund. The fund has benefited more than 3,000 journalists over two years. In addition, the UK has committed £7 million of new funding for independent media in Ukraine. We co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution on the safety of journalists, and there was the joint statement on the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, along with the 51st session of the Human Rights Council. Our media, as has been said, is recognised and respected all around the world, with audience figures rising continuously.

My Lords, returning to SLAPPs, last week we were told by the Minister’s noble and learned friend Lord Stewart of Dirleton that there was no legislative vehicle to bring in the measures needed. The Minister will appreciate that, it the Bill of Rights is forthcoming, Article 10 would be the legislative vehicle to expand on an anti-SLAPPs law. Will the Government do that?

The Government have reiterated their commitment to using primary legislation to introduce a statutory definition of SLAPP. It is not for me to determine which legislative vehicle should be used—that is way beyond my paygrade—but I will ensure that the noble Baroness’s suggestion is fed back to the appropriate authorities.