John Whittingdale: MPs should protect press freedom, not threaten journalists with bats

Posted On: 
9th January 2019

Former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale tells PoliticsHome why the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has made global protections for journalists more urgent than ever.

Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Turkey in October last year

The brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year made headlines across the world. But he wasn’t the only one. New figures from Reporters Sans Frontières have found that 80 journalists were killed in 2018, with 348 imprisoned and 60 held hostage. That is why former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale is demanding greater protections for the press globally and will be calling for Britain to take the lead in a Westminster Hall debate today. 


Why are journalists all over the world at increasing risk of violence and initmidation?  

“Obviously in conflict zones journalists inevitably find themselves on the frontline. Some of them are very courageous in trying to report from places where there is the most civilian suffering etc. and sadly some of them die in the course of it. So, there are those who, as a result of carrying out their job, end up caught up in a wider conflict.

“And then there are those who are specifically targeted – obviously Khashoggi is a very high-profile and well-known example – unfortunately there are an awful lot of others. There was Viktoria Marinova – a 30-year-old presenter of a current affairs programme in Bulgaria found beaten, raped and strangled, a Maltese journalist was a very high-profile case at the end of 2017, there has been another Slovac journalist murdered. It is happening in a large number of countries.”


Are politicians fuelling hostility towards the media?

“I do think that attacks on journalists and particularly journalism – not individuals but a general attack on the press - obviously doesn’t help. Obviously I don’t want to single out Donald Trump.

“The new President of the Czech Republic waved a dummy Kalashnikov inscribed ‘for journalists’. Now that kind of action certainly provokes this kind of behaviour. So, I do think there is a stronger climate of hostility.

“Journalists' job is to uncover corruption, to uncover abuses, to hold governments to account and in doing so they make enemies. And unfortunately some of those enemies are pretty unscrupulous or ruthless. If they are individuals then it can lead to violence against them. If they are states, and all too often it is states, then it leads to imprisonment. So, countries like Iran and China lock up large numbers of journalists.

“Even in Britain – I mean we respect journalists, we have a free press – but there are certain measures in this country which have been regarded internationally as restricting press freedom.”


Did Labour MP Kate Osamor set a dangerous precedent when she threatened a Times journalist with a bat?

“There has always been hostility on the left of British politics against newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch for instance. But it’s one thing to say I don’t want to talk to you because you represent a news outlet who I don’t like, it’s an entirely different thing to start using threatening behaviour. That is something which I don’t think you can justify in any circumstances. It adds to a climate in which being particularly an investigative journalist can be a risky occupation.”  


What is the Government doing to tackle persecution of journalists across the world?  

“The Foreign Office has set protection of journalists as one of their key issues to promote under Jeremy Hunt’s leadership and they have actually established a special unit within the Foreign Office.

“It intends to hold a conference this year, convened in London by the Foreign Office, to try and raise the profile of this issue and to try and get as many countries to commit as possible.”


What are you doing?

“I am hoping to hold a parallel conference organised by the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union which would complement the Foreign Office conference.

“The IPU is an interparliamentary body, so we would invite parliamentarians from around the world. The IPU is a good forum to push this agenda alongside what the government is doing.”


What needs to change?

“I would like to see all of those governments where journalists have suffered imprisonment or worse to have it raised with them. I know the Foreign Office wants to do this but it’s not just the UK. We need to get an international agreement, that whenever a minister from a country that is visiting another country where this kind of thing has taken place, it should always be on the agenda. It should be routine to say – your record on protecting journalists is not good. It’s about putting pressure on countries to do more and to raise awareness of this issue.”


What next?  

“On the back of the debate I am hoping that we will set up an All Party Parliamentary Group on this issue.”


John Whittingdale’s Westminster Hall debate ‘International protection of journalists‘ will take place at 4.30pm this afternoon.