“Media freedom is under attack”: The FCO’s defence of an endangered liberty Contents

1“Media freedom is under attack”

1.Those are the words of Joan Chirwa,1 a journalist from Zambia who was the editor of a newspaper called The Post until it was forcibly closed in 2016.2 Quite strikingly, journalists from across the world gave us the same warning throughout our inquiry.3 Among them were:4

2.The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has been clear that a free media is vital for good governance and the prevention of corruption; for innovation and prosperity; and for national stability, the world over.12 A free media can also be an ‘antidote’ to the growing threat of ‘disinformation’—the deliberate presentation of falsehoods as factual news, for personal, political, or commercial gain13—while an unfree media risks being disinformation’s mouthpiece.14 Yet our witnesses were clear that the assault on media freedom is a truly global problem, not only affecting countries ‘far away’ from the United Kingdom (UK), or those that might be considered ‘usual suspects.’15 The BBC World Service told us that “media freedoms are also now being eroded in states which have, until recently, operated a democratic and free system.”16 Scott Griffen, a Deputy Director at the International Press Institute, warned: “many of the gains of the past few decades are in danger of being reversed.”17

3.Almost one thousand journalists have been killed in the past decade. UNESCO, the UN agency that leads on promoting media freedom, records the names of journalists who are killed due to their work. Their database shows that, in the ten years between 2008 and 2018, nine hundred and fifty-nine journalists were killed: an average of one every four days.18 In 2019 so far, up to the date of this Report, thirty-nine journalists have been killed.19 Most of the journalists killed are deliberately targeted,20 most are not killed doing ‘war reporting’,21 and their deaths overwhelmingly go unpunished: the rate of impunity is almost 90 per cent.22

4.But these killings mark what UNESCO calls only “the tip of an iceberg of attacks against journalists.”23 Imprisonment is another threat, and Reporters Without Borders told us that as of August 2019 “a total of 399 journalists, citizen journalists and media workers are currently jailed around the world. Around half of those are concentrated in just five countries: China, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.”24 Even if they are not imprisoned, journalists around the world face harassment or intimidation because of their work.25 Further to this point, harassment can lead to brutal attacks that, in turn, can lead to loss of life.26 The collapse of the traditional financial models of the independent media, particularly the growing difficulty of sourcing revenue from advertising, is making journalists vulnerable to corruption or to financial dependence on—and therefore editorial obedience to—vested interests.27 All of these threats cause ‘self-censorship’.28

5.Many different perpetrators abuse the media. But it was striking how so many witnesses described governments and politicians as frequently being persecutors rather than protectors of journalists. They gave examples of political leaders around the world who have denigrated journalists (seeking to insult them, intimidate them, undermine their credibility, and disrupt their work),29 or sustained a hostile legal, regulatory, or financial environment for the work of the press.30

6.When journalists lose their rights, we all do. Yet the threats to media freedom are severe and universal, growing and evolving. An unfree media is spreading—including through broadcast and imitation—from countries that are leading by bad example. Regression is taking place in countries where progress had been achieved or hoped for, and even in those with erstwhile good records. This problem does not only affect countries ‘far away’ from the UK. Moreover, negative developments abroad risk undermining the UK’s media freedom.


1 Joan Chirwa (GMF0013) para 3. She is the founder of the Free Press Initiative in Zambia.

2 Joan Chirwa (GMF0013) para 1

3 A full list of the written and oral evidence published by the Committee is available at the back of this report, and also on Committee’s webpage for the inquiry into the FCO and global media freedom. We are grateful to all who gave us evidence, whether journalists or their supporters, some of whom were willing to put themselves at potential risk by speaking or writing to us.

4 See also references to “the global epidemic of targeted killings, attacks and unfounded or politically-motivated prosecutions of journalists” by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (GMF0003) para 1.1; or an “ever-increasing range of challenges” by the Association of International Broadcasting (GMF0027) para 3.3. “Media freedom is under severe threat around the world” according to Dr Martin Scott and Dr Mary Myers (GMF0033) para 2.1; “media freedom is under greater attack than ever before” according to Reporters Without Borders (GMF0039) para 3; and “the state of press freedom across the globe has been steadily deteriorating, with a number of complex and evolving threats” according to Scottish PEN and PEN International (GMF0030) p1

6 John Daniszewski, Vice President for Standards, Associated Press (video for the Twitter account of the Foreign Affairs Committee)

8 BBC World Service (GMF0009) p4

9 Hong Kong Journalists Association (GMF0026) p1

10 Gerall Chávez (GMF0029) para 7

11 Gerall Chávez (GMF0029) para 1

13 See definitions given, for example, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (GMF0004) para 3.1, or Olga Robinson a Russia and Disinformation Specialist with BBC Monitoring, Q31

14 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (GMF0004) para 3.1; National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) (GMF0010) para 58; BBC World Service (GMF0009) p5; International Media Support (GMF0007) para 10; and Julie Posetti a Senior Research Fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, Q39

15 International Press Institute (GMF0019) para 3; Reporters Without Borders (GMF0039) paras 8, and 9; Julie Posetti, Q9; Professor Jackie Harrison, a UNESCO Chair on Media Freedom, Journalism Safety, and the Issue of Impunity, University of Sheffield, Q9; and Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers ; Q17

16 BBC World Service (GMF0009) p4

17 Scott Griffen, Q42

20 Reporters Without Borders found that 61% of media workers killed in 2018 were ‘murdered or deliberately targeted’ and 60% in 2017: Worldwide round-up of journalists killed, detained, held hostage, or missing in 2018 and 2017. The International News Safety Institute (INSI), commenting on the 1,000 media workers that its study found were killed between 1996 and 2006, wrote that “at least 657 men and women were murdered—eliminated as they tried to shine light into the dark recesses of their societies”, Killing the messenger: Report of the Global Inquiry of the International News Safety Institute into the Protection of Journalists, p7.

21 A study of the killing of journalists around the world between 1996 and 2006 by INSI concluded that “only one in four news media staff died covering war and other armed conflicts. The great majority died in peacetime”, Killing the messenger: Report of the Global Inquiry of the International News Safety Institute into the Protection of Journalists, p7. Follow-up annual surveys by INSI have shown that—with the recent exception of their 2017 report—more journalists continue to be killed in ‘non-conflict’ situations than conflict. See INSI Killing the Messenger 2016 p5; 2017 p5; and 2018 p7. UNESCO reported that 55% of those killed in 2017 died in ‘countries not experiencing armed conflict’, while in 2016 half were killed in conflict zones and half were not (Highlights from the 2018 UNESCO Director-General’s Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity, p8

22 See UNESCO (GMF0005) p2; and Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary, National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Q43

23 UNESCO (GMF0005) p2

24 Reporters Without Borders (GMF0039) para 6

25 See for example Internews (GMF0011) para 6; Association for International Broadcasting (GMF0027) para 5.3; Gulf Centre for Human Rights and ALQST (GMF0040) para 6; the account of the Nicaraguan journalist Gerall Chávez (GMF0029) para 3; or of Joe Maalouf, an executive producer and television host from Lebanon, who described how “ Lebanese journalists and media figures suffer from insults, slander, and threats” (video for the Twitter account of the Foreign Affairs Committee). The issue of harassment and intimidation is covered in more detail in Chapter 2, Part 3, of this Report.

26 See for example the account of Matthew, Andrew, and Paul Caruana Galizia, of the harassment and intimidation of their mother, the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, prior to her assassination in 2017 (GMF0025). The Slovak journalist Beata Balogová, Editor-in-Chief of the SME newspaper, described how her colleague Ján Kuciak reported threats before he was murdered, Q101. Professor Jackie Harrison told us that “when a journalist is killed, it is very unusual for the killing to just be out of the blue. There has usually been a range of attacks or threats in the meantime” Q2.

27 See for example BBC Media Action (GMF0024) paras 5 and 14; the NUJ and IFJ (GMF0010) para 53 and 55; International Media Support (GMF0007) para 7; Internews (GMF0011) para 28a; and Daniela Pastrana, from the media platform Pie De Página (GMF0018) para 3. The issue of vested interests exploiting the financial weakness of journalists is covered in more detail in Chapter 2, Part 4, of this Report.

28 The link between self-censorship and the intimidation of the media, or the media’s financial weakness, was discussed by many of our witnesses. See, for example, Rosie Parkyn, Director of Programmes at Internews Q43; NUJ and IFJ (GMF0010) para 23; Hong Kong Journalists Association (GMF0026) p1; Daoud Kuttab (GMF0012) para 4; Gerall Chávez (GMF0029) para 8; or Jahanzaib Haque, (video for the Twitter account of the Foreign Affairs Committee);

29 See for example International Press Institute (GMF0019) para 13; the reference to an “emerging global pattern of open governmental hostility to the work of journalists” by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in (GMF0003) para 1.4; NUJ and IFJ (GMF0010) para 47; International Press Institute (GMF0019) para 14; Index on Censorship (GMF0017) para 3; Association for International Broadcasting (GMF0027) para 5.14; Reporters Without Borders (GMF0039) para 8; Scott Griffen Q42; Michelle Stanistreet, Q66; and Julie Posetti Q1; or examples given in Mexico by Daniela Pastrana (GMF0028) para 8 or Slovakia and the Visegrád region by Beata Balogová, Q95, Q102, and (GMF0018) para 2.

30 See for example Scott Griffen Q87; or suggestions that media regulators reflect and enforce government preferences: Daoud Kuttab (GMF0012) para 8; Joan Chirwa (GMF0013) para 4. The hostile legal environment for journalists is covered in more detail in Chapter 2, Part 2, of this Report. The hostile financial environment is discussed in more detail in Chapter 2, Part 4.




Published: 9 September 2019