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

Conclusions and recommendations

Media freedom is under attack”

1.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. (Paragraph 6)

The FCO’s defence of an endangered liberty

2.However well intentioned, the credibility of the FCO’s proposals to defend media freedom will face significant doubt. This is not the fault of the UK alone. Around the world and across the years, empty words have bred cynicism among journalists and their supporters. But there has been criticism of the FCO’s past performance in this field. Currently, there are concerns that the FCO has allocated too few resources, given too little detail about how it will fulfil its campaign, and taken too passing an interest in how to make it sustainable. There is anxiety that this vital initiative by the FCO risks becoming a disappointment. The FCO must now move beyond the rhetoric to demonstrate impact in defending media freedom. It must move beyond assurances to demonstrate working structures that will sustain that impact beyond the current year, the current campaign, and the past tenure of Jeremy Hunt as Foreign Secretary. We ask the FCO to provide updates every six months on its work in this area. We will return to this topic to assess the FCO’s progress. (Paragraph 12)

3.We welcome the FCO’s aim of assisting countries to ensure that their laws protect media freedom (even though witnesses asserted that the UK itself could improve in this respect). We worry nonetheless that those most likely to abuse the media are those least likely to comply with ‘Pledges’, ‘Action Plans’, or a ‘High-Level Panel of Legal Experts’, for as long as these remain voluntary and non-binding. Laws must be enforced and, when protections for journalists are flouted or absent, those who violate media freedom must be punished.

4.We praise the work of the FCO to raise the cases or attend the trials of persecuted journalists. We also welcome the FCO’s convening of a coalition to lobby in unison and amplify its impact through coordination with other countries. However, the FCO must do more in public to shame perpetrators; including when those perpetrators are governments. There is concern that the FCO’s preferred method is a firm word behind closed doors, especially when other UK interests are involved. The UK is seen, quite literally in some cases, as trading away its values. Three cases were repeated among those raised by our witnesses:

5.In general, the FCO should use sanctions to punish abusers of the media through a material cost, such as economic sanctions or travel bans. It should likewise coordinate such action with other countries, to amplify its impact. (Paragraph 22)

6.Beyond the physical threats to journalists are issues of harassment and intimidation that also play a crucial role in silencing the media. Journalists who seek escape abroad might face their families or associates being thus targeted in their countries of origin. And the evolving cross-border nature of this threat means that distance is no longer a deterrent: digital technology and the online space give new opportunities for journalists to work, but also new avenues through which they can be targeted wherever they are in the world. (Paragraph 27)

7.The FCO should:

8.Journalists need to fund their operations. And they need to do so without vulnerability to corruption or editorial interference derived from financial dependence on governments, wealthy individuals, or other vested interests. Yet the disruption of the conventional funding models for independent journalism is making that harder and harder, especially given the emergence of rival online platforms and the decline of advertising revenue. These financial challenges might not be physical, like the risks of death or injury or imprisonment. Nevertheless, like the risks of harassment and intimidation, they are having a debilitating real-world effect of silencing the free media. (Paragraph 32)

9.We praise the FCO for its work to establish the Global Media Defence Fund. The FCO should consider widening the remit of this Fund, further to support journalists trying to preserve their work and independence despite their financial vulnerability and malicious efforts to silence them by exploiting it. The FCO’s proposed training and legal assistance will be of real benefit, but limited use to journalists financially. Further to this point, the Government should also consider measures such as expanding its advertising with suitable media organisations abroad, to give journalists a legitimate source of revenue, or taking steps such as donating equipment to lower the costs associated with their job. (Paragraph 33)

10.The BBC World Service is a vital force for projecting and encouraging the free media globally. The £291 million of additional Government funding announced in 2015 has expanded the World Service’s reach. That funding was nevertheless due to expire in March 2020. The Government has already given the World Service a six-month funding extension. The Government should extend that funding for at least an additional six months, to give the World Service greater financial certainty. (Paragraph 35)

Published: 9 September 2019