Open letter: Rights organisations call on UK authorities to protect press freedom

After the recent attack on The Guardian columnist Owen Jones, the ECPMF has joined Scottish PEN, ARTICLE 19, English PEN, Index on Censorship, National Union of Journalists Scotland and Reporters Without Borders in an open letter, calling on the UK authorities to take all necessary actions to investigate the attack on Owen Jones and protect press freedom in the UK.

Monday 26th August 2019

Rt. Hon. Nicky Morgan MP
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Street

Dear Rt. Hon. Nicky Morgan MP,

The undersigned organisations, including Scottish PEN, ARTICLE 19, English PEN, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Index on Censorship, National Union of Journalists Scotland and Reporters Without Borders, are concerned by the recent attack on journalist Owen Jones and the worsening state of press freedom both in the UK and across the globe. We call on the UK authorities to take all necessary actions to investigate this attack, prosecute those responsible and commit to ensuring press freedom is protected.

The Guardian columnist Owen Jones was celebrating his birthday with friends when he was violently assaulted outside a London pub in the early morning of 17 August 2019. While the motivation behind this attack is unclear at this stage, it should be viewed in the context of a wider set of threats made against Jones, based on his writing and political positions. This includes a photo taken of him without his knowledge in a pub, with the caption “I can get close to your like minded people it’s scary. Do not underestimate my talents of my past and present I even know your address of all you radicals.” The day after the attack, The Guardian reported that “there had been ‘chatter online’ about the incident at the Lexington pub on Pentonville Road hours before [Jones] went public about it on Saturday afternoon”. Jones himself reported that “football hooligans were boasting in closed groups along the lines of ‘Owen Jones has been done in, in Islington’”.

While journalism comes with risks, no journalist should ever be attacked in connection with their work or in their personal life. Disagreement, however hyperbolic or antagonistic, should never lead to violence. Every attack on a writer shuts down debate and sends a dangerous signal to others, encouraging them to avoid sensitive topics, however important, that may invite threats of violence.

Unfortunately, in the UK – which is currently ranked 33rd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index – this is one of many attacks on journalists in recent times. Over the past year alone, journalist Lyra McKee was killed while reporting events in Derry, photographer Joel Goodman was assaulted while covering a demonstration in Manchester, a BBC camera crew was attacked by supporters of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) outside the Old Bailey in London, and in Northern Ireland, journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey faced early morning raids at their homes, were detained and questioned, and had charges brought against them and equipment confiscated in connection to their reporting on leaked documents related to the 1994 Loughinisland massacre. Such actions constitute a significant threat to press freedom, the right to free expression and to society at large as the public will be less able to access independent and impartial information.

Around the world, journalism is becoming a more hazardous profession. Mexico remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, with over 150 journalists being murdered since 2000; hundreds of journalists have been arrested and convicted in politically motivated criminal cases in Turkey; journalists across Europe have been assassinated for their work uncovering networks of corruption and abuses of power including state entities, senior politicians and organised crime networks; and The Intercept Brazil is under increasing threats for its coverage of state corruption in Brazil. This is a small snapshot of the threats that journalists endure around the world. At a time when journalists are being decried as traitors, saboteurs, ‘enemies of the people’, or accused of participating in ‘Project Fear’, and journalism itself is being devalued, the space for a free press is severely shrinking.

At the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London in July 2019, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office brought together leading experts to explore ways the UK and other like-minded states can meaningfully protect journalists across the globe. This was an important step, but concrete action needs to follow to ensure the issues raised are not ignored. The commitments undertaken will ring hollow if we are silent on the threats to press freedom within the UK.

Every journalist, whether a reporter, investigative journalist, columnist, editor or cartoonist deserves all necessary protections to ensure they can continue their work free from threats of violence. If journalists are threatened into silence, we suffer, and our democracy suffers. The undersigned organisations call on all relevant UK authorities to live up to their commitments to the right to freedom of expression and to ensure that all journalists are safe to continue their work across the United Kingdom.
We look forward to hearing from you and would be interested to schedule a meeting to talk about these issues in more detail.

Yours sincerely,

Carl MacDougall, President, Scottish PEN
Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia, ARTICLE 19
Maureen Freely, Chair of Trustees, English PEN
Nora Wehofsits, Advocacy Officer, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
Joy Hyvarinen, Head of Advocacy, Index on Censorship
John Toner, National Organiser for Scotland, National Union of Journalists Scotland
Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director, Reporters Without Borders

Update 30. August 2019 – Three men have been arrested and released on bail by police investigating an assault (Guardian)

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