EXCL Theresa May’s commitment to press freedom questioned amid continued spyware sales to repressive regimes

Posted On: 
10th February 2019

Theresa May's commitment to protecting press freedoms abroad has been thrown into doubt after it emerged the Government is continuing to sell spyware to repressive regimes.

Activists at a rally against Turkish press censorship
Credit: 
PA

Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson warned the Prime Minister that her pledges would be "meaningless" if ministers continued to authorise exports of telephone snooping software to regimes accused of arbitrarily arresting reporters.

Responding to new figures from campaign group Reporters Without Borders which found 80 journalists had been killed and another 348 imprisoned throughout 2018, Theresa May vowed to use government resources to protect media organisations working within dangerous foreign nations.

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She told the Commons last week: “We are helping to train journalists around the world, such as in Venezuela, where have seen an authoritarian government suppress their critics, and this year we plan to host an international conference in London on media freedom to bring together countries that believe in this cause and to mobilise an international consensus behind the protection of journalists.

“This is an important issue, and the Government are putting their weight behind it.”

But PoliticsHome has learned the Government has repeatedly granted export licenses for spyware to some of the fiercest oppressors of a free press, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Brunei.

Following a failed coup in 2016, Turkey’s President Erdogan launched a brutal crackdown on the press, indiscriminately jailing journalists opposed to the regime, often without trial, for minor offences such as downloading encrypted messaging services on to their mobile phones.

Yet in 2017, the UK government approved exports of telephone interception equipment to Turkish security agencies, including controversial IMSI catchers which are capable of eavesdropping on telephone conversations, accessing private information stored on mobile phones and conducting indiscriminate surveillance of individuals attending events such as political demonstrations.

'SEVERE THREAT'

Reporters Without Borders concluded the regime had imprisoned over 100 journalists in the wake of the coup - more than any other nation in 2017.

But despite growing international concern about digitial surveillance of journalists working within Turkey, the Government granted a further license between July and September 2018 for the software used to run the snooping technology.

Mr Watson told PoliticsHome: “Journalistic freedom is one of the pillars of democracy, and this Government should do everything they can to protect that freedom here and in other countries.

“Theresa May insisted last week that this Government is supporting journalists around the world with training, but that will be meaningless if we enable the suppression of journalistic freedom in other ways.

“The Government must urgently confirm that they are not selling equipment to foreign states that will be used to surveil journalists doing their jobs."

Edin Omanovic, head of Privacy International’s state surveillance technology, said the exports demonstrated a “breath-taking disregard” for journalists welfare.

“This technology poses a severe threat to journalists everywhere,” he told PoliticsHome. “The fact that the UK government has signed off on the export in the midst of a crackdown shows breath-taking disregard for journalists’ work and safety.

"If the government is serious about protecting media freedom around the world, the first step it can take is to stop empowering agencies actively targeting journalists.”

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who sits on the Commons committee on arms export controls added: “By approving the exports of IMSI catchers to Turkey, Britain is empowering Erdogan with the tools to hunt and disappear activists, journalists and dissidents that challenge him, in clear contravention of criterion 2 of the consolidated criteria, the basis of the UK arms export control law.

“This is a man who has locked up over 100 elected officials since 2016 and replaced them with his own party’s appointees. This is a man who has locked up more journalists than any other world leader. This is not a man we should be enabling to repress his own people.”

The Department for International Trade has been contacted for comment.