Journalists: International Protection

Mark responded today on behalf of the Government in his role as Minister for Asia and the Pacific in the debate tabled by John Whittingdale MP regarding the international protection of journalists. Mark's response is pasted below. To view the debate in its entirety on Hansard, please click here.

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered international protection of journalists.

I am very grateful to have the opportunity to debate the very important issue of the international protection of journalists. I am also delighted to see so many colleagues present. We have only an hour so I will endeavour to keep my remarks brief. I thank all those who have helped me with the preparation for the debate and for the more general work they do in this field, particularly Reporters Sans Frontières, Index on Censorship, the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the BBC World Service.

Journalists play a vital role in a free society. Their role in exposing corruption, highlighting injustice and holding Governments to account helps to make a democracy function, but it does not always make them popular. Sadly, in authoritarian regimes, that often leads to imprisonment, being taken hostage, intimidation and sometimes even death.

There are varying figures for the record over the past year, but all agree that 2018 was one of the worst years on record for journalists being killed, imprisoned or held hostage. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, 80 journalists were killed in 2018 during the course of their duties; 348 are being held in prison and 60 held hostage. The countries with the worst records are perhaps predictable: in terms of deaths, they are Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, Yemen and India.

Perhaps the most high profile death was that of Jamal Khashoggi, who died in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It is reported that 11 people are on trial for that in Saudi Arabia, but we have little knowledge of the evidence to suggest that they ultimately bear responsibility. That death was condemned by Turkey—the country in which it took place—but Turkey’s record inspires little confidence. Turkey has 33 journalists imprisoned. One journalist, Pelin Ünker, was sentenced only in the last few days to a year’s imprisonment for her work in investigating the paradise papers. It is for that reason that international bodies have called for an international, independent investigation into what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. The worst countries for imprisonment of journalists are China, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

I want to mention in particular the work of the BBC World Service, which I have a particular regard for, and the Persian service of the BBC. Its journalists have suffered a relentless campaign against not just them but their families that are still in Iran. BBC World Service journalists in Russia have also found that their data has been published online with an encouragement to hound them. The BBC has made protests against that.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for securing parliamentary time to debate this very important issue. His passionate commitment to the strategic issues around global media is of long standing. Let me take this opportunity to personally pay tribute to his previous outstanding work in this important and increasingly high-profile field, both as Secretary of State and as a two-term Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.

We were also delighted to hear contributions and interventions from a range of other hon. Members, and I will try to respond to the points that were raised, but first, I will share some of what the UK Government are already doing to try to improve the climate for media freedom and our plans to do more over the coming year.

There can be no doubt that media freedom is under increasing attack across the world. The figures speak for themselves: 80 journalists were killed in 2018, 348 are languishing in prison and 60 are being held hostage. It is appalling that these numbers represent a steady increase on those of previous years. Countries are increasingly using restrictive laws to stifle freedom of expression and to prevent the functioning of an independent media. The climate is worsening fast.

Naturally, for many people—even those in public life—it is uncomfortable to find oneself in the glare of the media spotlight, but I hope that all of us, as publicly elected representatives, believe and appreciate that such ​scrutiny is an essential part of a vibrant and healthy democracy, and that it is of huge benefit to society as a whole. It is no coincidence that countries with the freest media are also generally the most transparent and the least corrupt. Needless to say, the same applies in reverse. Powerful people may think twice about abusing their position if there is a good chance that their behaviour will be exposed in the media; conversely, an absence of scrutiny can lead to the very worst abuses of power and corruption.

Here in the UK, we have long had a culture of supporting freedom of expression. We are rightly proud of our tradition of an independent media, which underpins the fundamental values of our democracy. As a consequence, we collectively tolerate the excesses and at times the low journalistic standards of our tabloid press. That is a price we have to pay. However, in recent days in the vicinity of the House, the Sky News journalist Kay Burley and my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) were subjected to unacceptable levels of harassment. The wealth of media expertise and innovation in this country not only strengthens our own media sector, but supports the development of a strong and independent media in many countries overseas.

Regarding UK Action, I was very taken by the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). Let me reassure her that posts overseas routinely lobby Governments, often on a bilateral basis, wherever and whenever serious violations occur. My fellow Foreign Office Ministers and I also raise these issues routinely with our counterparts, and we will continue to do so, while also taking up individual cases personally—a point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), as well.

We promote freedom of expression and media freedom all over the world, and we routinely raise concerns about serious violations with foreign Governments. One such case was highlighted during my trip last week to Vietnam, where I raised with ministerial counterparts concerns about the plan for a new cyber-security law in that country. I know that such discussions go on in visits that Ministers undertake across the globe. We also support media freedom through our Magna Carta Fund in some of the countries where human rights and democracy are most at threat.

In the multilateral sphere, we will continue to use our influence to support media freedom, the safety of journalists and freedom of expression at the United Nations Human Rights Council. A current example of this is seen in Mexico—a country that has been named by Reporters Without Borders as among the world’s five most deadly countries not at war. In November, we raised concerns about limitations to freedom of expression and violence against journalists and human rights defenders during the United Nation’s universal periodic review of Mexico. We raise these issues as important international principles in their own right, but in the past 12 months we have also raised concerns in all of the specific countries mentioned in the debate.

We shall also utilise our active and ongoing membership of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. We will continue to use those important vehicles to highlight our concerns, ​galvanise consensus and effect change, and we are looking actively for ways to use them to greater and more meaningful effect.

Martin Whitfield (East Lothian) (Lab)

Tribute should be paid to our own Baron Foulkes of Cumnock, who is the general rapporteur in the Council of Europe for media freedom and the protection of journalists.

Mark Field

That tribute has indeed been paid. I also take on board the proposal that we support a UN representative or convention on the protection of journalists. I know that is something that is actively being pursued.

In the coming year and beyond, we will strengthen our efforts yet further. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon referred to the work being done by the new Foreign Secretary, who is very focused on this issue. We shall continue to work through those important multilateral bodies to galvanise consensus and effect change, and we are looking actively for ways of building on their work. We will also use our membership of like-minded groupings, such as the Freedom Online Coalition and the Community of Democracies, to step up our efforts specifically to promote media freedom and the safety of journalists. We shall continue to work closely with civil society and media organisations to ensure that we use the influencing power of Government to good effect, to complement and build on their own efforts. However, it is also important that we ramp up the bilateral response with countries with whom we have strong connections, whether through the Department for International Development or in a range of other areas. We will continue to work together in that regard.

We must also recognise that we cannot do all this work alone. That is why, later this year, we will host in London an international conference on media freedom. Our aim is to bring the issue to global attention, promote the value and benefits of a free media—indeed, a free internet—to a wider audience, and mobilise an international consensus behind the protection of journalists, as the obvious guardians of those freedoms.

A robust, free, vibrant and varied media landscape is also one of the best antidotes to hostile state disinformation. Like restrictions on the media, disinformation also requires a concerted response. Here, too, we feel that the UK is at the forefront of a growing international consensus on the need for action. At home, we are drawing, among other things, on the experience of our Nordic and Baltic partners, which means taking a whole-of-society approach to this matter. That involves working towards three key objectives in relation to disinformation: first, deterring the use of disinformation by exposing and disrupting the perpetrators; secondly, increasing transparency and accountability online to make it more difficult and less rewarding to spread disinformation; and thirdly, making people more resilient through education and empowerment. We are investing £100 million in that effort around the world, which includes, at the moment, £8.5 million in eastern Europe and central Asia alone.

To respond to some specific points raised by Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) talked about Iran. The reports of BBC staff in Iran being harassed and subjected to asset freezes and similar forms of mistreatment are deeply worrying. The Foreign Secretary specifically raised our ​concerns about the harassment of BBC Persia staff and their families in Iran when he was there during his visit on 9 and 10 December. Officials at the British embassy in Tehran have also twice raised concerns with leading figures in the Iranian Government. Members should be made aware that in December 2018, we once again co-sponsored the UN General Assembly’s resolution on the human rights situation in Iran, specifically highlighting the poor record on freedom of expression.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) asked about the case of Mr Huseynov in Azerbaijan. We regularly express our concerns about the rights of political prisoners with the Azeri authorities. Over the past two years, we have attended a number of Mr Huseynov’s court hearings, and we met with his lawyer most recently on 3 January this year. The UK will continue to follow the case closely and is considering next steps with our international partners.

I will conclude with this thought. A free press is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, because it holds the powerful to account, helps to expose corruption and lack of integrity, and is one of the best antidotes to disinformation. That is why we must take action to stop the intimidation, harassment and persecution of journalists across the world, and is why this year we will place as many of the resources as we can from the Foreign and ​Commonwealth Office—not only financial, but in time terms, too—behind a campaign to reverse the worrying trends outlined in this debate.