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Some politicians are among the worst culprits for intimidating journalists

5 min read

Those who abuse the media must be publicly shamed, and even targeted with sanctions by the FCO, even if they are governments, writes Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chair, Tom Tugendhat MP. 

Democracy is more than voting.  It’s more than politicians or Parliament.  It’s the way we talk to each other, debate, test – and reject – ideas. Elections reveal the collective decision of a nation, but no matter how fair the poll is, if it is based on deceit or fraud, it is merely whitewashing a sham.  In a democracy, polls are a final expression of a free people and built on the foundations of freedom of speech, a free media and an independent judiciary.  Today, all three are under threat.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) recognised this, officially making defending media freedom its ‘priority campaign’ for 2019. In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, we were shocked not only by how bad the problem is but how much worse it has become. It’s not just the ‘usual suspects’ or places ‘far away’ from the UK: media freedom has got worse in EU members, important allies, countries where progress seemed established, and places close to home.

One of the most consistent and disappointing findings of our inquiry was how some governments and politicians, who should be the ultimate protectors of the media, are among the worst culprits for persecuting and intimidating journalists.  At the very least, too many are denigrating those who work to bring us the facts, and deliberately creating a hostile environment for journalists. That’s shameful.

How do you silence a journalist? As the ultimate injustice, journalists are being killed at a truly appalling rate.  On average, one has died every four days for the past decade.  That’s one thousand since 2008, according to UNESCO.  And they’re being murdered - not caught in the crossfire of battle or in accidents - but deliberately targeted by states and individuals for doing their duty, bringing us the truth.

Our inquiry heard about Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed by a car bomb in Malta.  Jamal Khashoggi was reportedly strangled, then dismembered, in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.  Ján Kuciak: shot, along with his fiancée, in Slovakia.  But the deaths of most journalists never hit the headlines. And these killings are, according to the UN, just the 'tip of the iceberg' in terms of threats that they face.

Threats go beyond the physical and include the harassment and intimidation of journalists. Targeting two reporters from the Washington Post on Twitter on Saturday 7 September, US President Donald Trump has again shown the evolution of technology.  In other words, the same tools are used to do more than intimidate and threaten individuals who speak out.

One of our key recommendations to the Foreign Office is that it must put digital threats at the core of its strategy to protect journalists.  Violations cross borders and time zones as no journalist is safe from online harassment, even in a ‘free’ country.  Our maritime moat does not protect those writing in the UK.

A London-based journalist from the BBC Persian Service told us how she had received rape and death threats from Iran.  Social media, we were told, has been ‘weaponised’. Female staff in particular have been targeted with ‘fake news’ stories or ‘deep-fake’ pornographic content to discredit and intimidate them.  And journalists based in Europe told us about how they had been targeted by the Russian trolls that they sought to counter or expose. They were hit with online retaliation that carried real-world consequences: not just impeding their work but also threatening their safety.  Perhaps worse, many friends and colleagues began to doubt them.

Some of the problems faced by journalists are financial.  Around the world they’re finding it harder to fund their operations as online rivals emerge, or advertising revenue drains away. That can make them vulnerable to corruption or simply at the mercy of vested interests who can buy influence.  We focus so much on training, legal frameworks, and statements of intent. But, as one journalist from Mexico asked us: how can you produce quality journalism if you can’t make ends meet?

The FCO has announced worthy initiatives to defend media freedom. They’re a good start, but it should go much further. Among the ten recommendations made by our report is that those who abuse the media must be publicly shamed, and even targeted with sanctions by the FCO, even if they are governments. The FCO should look at ways to help journalists financially vulnerable to exploitation and to help them counter digital threats.

Whatever the FCO does, it must be sustainable.  So far, the initiatives are voluntary and non-binding, far too dependent on goodwill and promises of change from governments who have been among the worse abusers of the press.  We can’t go on like this.  Journalists around the world need backing but hardly dare hope it could come. If we’re going to ensure that the world remains one we can work with, where the rule of law and free trade are part of openness, where barriers are brought down and protectionism is pushed back, the FCO must keep its attention on media freedom. It is like the canary in the mine, warning us of atrocities to come. Those warnings are clear – we need to act now.


Tom Tugendhat is Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

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