The below speech was made by the author in the House of Lords on 14 May 2019
Central to any debate looking at press freedom and the harassment of journalists is Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
These last three words “regardless of frontiers” remind us that this is a transnational obligation which all states are duty-bound to uphold.
This obligation is given even sharper definition in the internet age, as journalists face ever more danger—intimidation, imprisonment, violent attacks and even murder—in reprisal for their work.
Only yesterday, in the Times there was a report on the death of an Afghan journalist, Mena Mangal, who was shot dead in Kabul. Fifteen other reporters and media workers were killed in Afghanistan last year.
Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, is to be commended for marking World Press Freedom Day, launching a global campaign to protect journalists doing their job, and promoting the benefits of a free media and especially for hosting in July the world’s first ministerial summit on media freedom.
The urgent need for this initiative was underlined at the Legatum Institute’s Courage in Journalism award which I recently attended. It was given posthumously in recognition of amazing bravery.
Poignantly, the ceremony was being held a few days after Lyra McKee’s funeral in Northern Ireland.
One of the judges, the award-winning journalist, Christina Lamb, recalled the death of her colleague, Marie Colvin, killed in Homs. Reflecting on her own 32 years as a journalist, she said that the job much more dangerous. The judges highlighted 70 deaths during the past year. Christina Lamb said:
“From Afghanistan to Mexico, from Palestine to Somalia, and from Brazil to India, journalists on assignment were shot in the back, blown up by car bombs or died in suicide attacks”.
In 2018, according to the Foreign Office, 99 journalists were killed, 348 detained and 60 taken hostage by non-state groups. Although there are conflicting figures, all agree that 2018 was the deadliest year ever for journalists.
All of us here are only too well aware of the lethal dangers in countries such as North Korea and Pakistan. I declare an interest as co-chair of two relevant All-Party Parliamentary Groups.
However, this is an issue in Europe as well.
In October 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta’s best-known investigative journalist, was killed when a car bomb exploded after she had reported on government corruption, nepotism, money laundering and organised crime.
The 2019 Legatum award was given in memory of a brave young man, Ján Kuciak from Slovakia. He was just 27 when he was murdered, along with his fiancée, following an investigation in which he linked the Italian mafia to the City of London and Slovakian senior government advisors. His reporting led to the fall of the Slovakian Government and rallied many in the nation to get behind press freedom.
Reporters Without Borders, reflecting on its index of 180 countries, says that the line separating physical from verbal violence is dissolving.
By way of example, its index states that, in the Philippines—ranked 133rd—President Rodrigo Duterte, “constantly insults reporters”, outrageously warning that they are “not exempted from assassination”.
Even in democratic societies, the use of intemperate vituperative insults and dog whistles creates a climate of rancid hatred, and politicians especially need to think more carefully about their use of language.
When the Minister replies, I would like him to comment on these examples from Afghanistan, Malta, Slovakia and the Philippines, and the situations in Papua, Iran and China. Last week, here at Westminster, representatives of West Papua meeting the noble Lord, Lord Collins, me and others described, “appalling restrictions on foreign journalists from visiting Papua and surveillance and controls on Indonesian journalists”.
On 3 February last year, three BBC workers were deported from West Papua after commenting on the humanitarian health crisis in Asmat, during which around 100 children died.
My noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries, who chaired the meeting last week, will no doubt say more about this in due course.
The BBC also faces restrictions in Iran—we heard about them from the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey—which has been systematically targeting BBC Persian journalists, based mainly in London.
What of China, let alone North Korea, which boasts of its complete information blockade? Reporters Without Borders says that under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China exported, “its tightly controlled news and information model in Asia”, enabling other countries near the bottom of its index, including Vietnam, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, to continue their suppression of criticism and dissent.
RWF says that its index has never previously had to classify so many countries as very bad.
That is reinforced by Freedom House, which says that only 13% of the world’s population lives in a country with a genuinely free press, while 45% of the population lives in a media environment that is not free and that global press freedom has declined to its lowest point in 13 years.
All of this illustrates why the Government’s initiative, like this debate, is to be welcomed, why we must be more energetic in upholding Article 19, and why we must safeguard a freedom that is a cornerstone of open, free and democratic societies.