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10.07.2019

London conference puts UK on world press freedom map

By Jane Whyatt

An EU Member State where the murder of a journalist remains unpunished and investigative journalists have been prosecuted for refusing to reveal whistleblowers is hosting an international media freedom conference. 

London conference puts UK ion world press freedom map London welcomes press freedom campaigners with Orwell quote. Photo: ECPMF

London welcomes global media freedom community and journalists on 10 and 11 July – except for the two Russian broadcasters RT and Sputnik, whose accreditation to the conference has been refused. 

The UK has its share of press and media freedom violations. Impunity surrounds the murder of reporter Lyra McKee in April 2019. A dissident Irish Republican group, the New IRA, has claimed responsibility but so far no-one has been charged. It happened after McKee tweeted photos from a riot in a Republican district of Derry (also known as Londonderry). Rioting broke out on Good Friday, the anniversary of the 1998 Agreement that ended thirty years of civil war in Northern Ireland. McKee was a well-known journalist and LGBTQI rights campaigner who was writing a book about the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

A spokesperson for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) told the ECPMF that “enquiries into the murder are ongoing“. There have been eight arrests and two charges, but these relate to public order offences and not to the killing of the reporter.

Investigative reporters arrested

Meanwhile the PSNI and Durham police have dropped charges against two investigative reporters who were prosecuted after police raided their office. But the film-makers, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, endured nine months on bail under threat of prosecution and their documentary ’No stone unturned’ has yet to be broadcast. The UK and Ireland National Union of Journalists has condemned the prosecution

On the eve of the Global Media Freedom Conference in London, more than thirty media freedom organisations published a hard-hitting joint statement to all participating states. The key demands are:

-        Release all imprisoned journalists;

-        Stop killing, attacking and denigrating journalists;

-        Investigate and prosecute all murders of journalists.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, joined the launch of a freedom of expression declaration at the conference after speaking at a pre-event called 'Stop! It's the Speech Police'.

Another UN expert, Nils Melzer, recently condemned the UK for its ill-treatment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is currently in the hospital wing of London’s top-security Belmarsh prison awaiting extradition to the United States on charges under the 1917 Espionage Act. Those charges carry a potential 20 year prison sentence.

Access to official information, protection for whistleblowers and surveillance of journalists are further concerns expressed by the media freedom campaigners in their joint statement. This is a hot topic in Great Britain, where the Government has introduced an Online Harms bill, attracting criticism from campaigns including the London-based Index on Censorship.

Managing Director of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom Lutz Kinkel comments: “Regulating intermediaries is a difficult issue - it might also affect freedom of expression. In the UK it begins with the definition of the word 'harm'. Who decides what 'harms' the debate?

As the conference got under way, representatives of the British government were in Strasbourg at the European Court of Human rights, defending the surveillance tactics of the GCHQ spy service. The case has been brought by the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism. 

Given all these threats to press freedom in the UK, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his Canadian counterpart Chrystia Freeland have chosen a good moment to invite the world’s top experts to London and call for global action. The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom’s Legal Adviser Flutura Kusari did an intervention at a panel, featuring former ECPMF Journalist-in-Residence Matthew Caruana Galizia, son of the murdered Maltese reporter.

Flutura Kusari comments: “This is an opportunity to speak directly to foreign ministers and policy makers from across the world, to convince them of the urgent need to act on journalists’ safety.“

She reminded the audience of state responsibility and the need of paying attention to alarming signals early enough.

Global Media Freedom conference launch Launch of Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression in London. Photo @L. Kinkel

For Mr Hunt himself, however, the timing could be inconvenient. He is in the middle of a campaign to win enough votes from Conservative party members to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His opponent Boris Johnson, a former journalist and Brussels correspondent, is less keen than Mr Hunt on press freedom. He recently faced down a court case alleging that he had knowingly lied in the media and in a message painted on the side of a bus during the 2016 referendum campaign on the UK exiting the European Union (Brexit).

Mr Johnson also five times refused to answer a TV journalist’s questions about his involvement in a disturbance at his girlfriend’s home, where the police were called by a concerned neighbour.

The UK government announced a package of £18 million over 3 years to counter disinformation and fake news across Eastern Europe and strengthen independent media in the Western Balkans. At the end of day one, before a speech by Amal Clooney, Hunt said: "Today we send a resounding message: that media freedom is not a western value, but a universal value." - "Real accountability comes by the risk of exposure by media that cannot be controlled." He announced 1.) a global media defence fund/ 3 Million pounds in 5 years 2.) a task force, and annual meetings 3.) Advice how protect journalists legally 4.) a contact group to lobby media freedom.

Now suit the action to the word!

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The conference continues on 11 July and you can follow it live on Twitter @foreignoffice / @ECPMF.