St Bride's: News

World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day

© UNESCO

Next week, the United Kingdom will join nations around the globe to celebrate World Press Freedom Day. However, with the UK ranked a lowly 40th in the World Press Freedom Index, should we look closer to home before joining in with celebrations? https://en.unesco.org/commemorations/worldpressfreedomday/2018

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) say the UK is "one of the worst-ranked Western European countries" in the 2018 index. This is two places worse than the 2016 index, and a shocking twelve places below our position in 2012.

World Press Freedom Day was established in 1993 after African nations produced the landmark Windhoek Declaration on media pluralism and independence two years before. Although press freedom is still a serious problem in many African nations, some - like Ghana, Namibia and South Africa - are now ranked higher than the UK (https://rsf.org/en/ranking )

The rankings show the influence of initiatives like World Press Freedom Day. The countries it was designed to help now have improved conditions for journalists. But what does it say for the UK?

Media commentator Roy Greenslade argues that government control in the UK is music to the ears of regimes who implement stricter control over their media.

Speaking at the British Journalism Awards in December last year, he said: "predators of press freedom are only too delighted when they are able to point to restrictions on press freedom in Britain. Look, they say to their own journalists, to their own peoples, look what happens in that country you all regard as so perfect. Their freedom is a sham." http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/roy-greenslade-why-snoopers-charter-data-protection-act-and-section-40-all-threaten-uks-status-as-bastion-of-press-freedom/

The UK is notably ranked well below Slovakia, in 27th place, where journalist Ján Kuciak was killed last year after investigating links between politicians and the mafia (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/09/death-of-investigative-journalist-sparks-mass-protests-in-slovakia ). Last year, we were only marginally higher than Malta (47th, now 65th), where journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was also murdered last year, with her blog focussing on political corruption, business and organised crime (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/04/daphne-caruana-galizia-malta-journalist-eight-arrested-murder-inquiry ).

[c.f. Review of the annual Journalist Memorial Service held here at St Bride's: http://www.stbrides.com/news/2017/11/review-of-journalists-commemorative-service-by-guild-bursary-journalist.html]

So why is the UK ranked so low - and among countries where journalists are murdered for doing their jobs?

Greenslade cites certain legislation as factors contributing to the UK's ranking.

In his speech, he said: "the Investigatory Powers Act... has given the police and intelligence agencies sweeping surveillance powers. Under its provisions, all of our confidential sources could be discovered.

"The mooted Espionage Act... would equate journalists with spies in the sense that receiving information, which is what reporters do, and are supposed to do, would place them in jeopardy of being jailed as if they were traitors.

"As for the information-givers, those essential whistleblowers on whom we depend, they would not be able to advance a public interest justification for their leaks."

By limiting the ability of journalists to hold power to account, the Government controls more information.

Should whistleblowers be denied protection, stories like the recent Cambridge Analytica revelations would not have been possible. In turn, we would still be blissfully unaware of data harvesting to allegedly target voters with political advertising, and Mark Zuckerberg would not have been held to account in front of Congress.

More importantly, though, the revelations indicated there are not just legal barriers in the way for journalists: politicians no longer need journalists to get their message out.

As a result, the rhetoric from our politicians is starting to follow the trend set by President Trump and the USA - who are ranked 5 places below the UK in the Press Freedom Index - and others.

In his British Journalism Awards speech, Roy Greenslade commented: "Journalists have been openly vilified by political leaders, such as presidents Trump and Putin and Erdogan, thereby encouraging people to vilify us in turn.

"The result is that the role of the news media, and its mission to hold power to account, is daily being undermined."

There may not be the same open vitriol from Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, but our high-profile political figures are controlling more and more of their access to journalists, and when they do grant access reports suggest questions are often pre-approved.

We are moving towards a dangerous dynamic where journalists need politicians more than politicians need journalists, which further undermines the news media and this trickles down into public consciousness.

People are being encouraged to distrust news. While readers should be encouraged to consider the source of the news they are consuming, journalists should not expect to require security to carry out their duties - like Laura Kuenssberg at last year's Labour party conference as a result of abuse she received (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/laura-kuenssberg-labour-party-conference-bodyguards-bbc-politics-editor-online-abuse-social-media-a7965301.html ).

So what can be done?

The Government has announced a £1m fund for projects that will enable journalists to promote free press in countries where media freedom is under significant pressure (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/foreign-secretary-announces-free-speech-funding ). It may not be the largest contribution, especially under the backdrop of legislation limiting press freedom in our own country, but it is a start.

However, it is up to the journalism industry to show the public and politicians that there is a place for quality news. They can do that through stories like Cambridge Analytica - and going further back, the Panama Papers - which show that journalists will still find the story and make a difference.

Looking internationally, where journalists are being murdered and imprisoned for doing their jobs, the Freedom Voices Network's Forbidden Stories project publicises work of journalists that their murderers wish to supress (https://rsf.org/en/news/launch-forbidden-stories-project ).

RWB General Secretary Christophe Deloire describes the project as: "using journalism to defend journalism".

The UK has maintained its place at 40th in World Press Freedom for the last two years, so the Forbidden Stories approach is one we could learn from.

By continuing to create, sell and share quality journalism that holds power to account - like Cambridge Analytica - we can use journalism to defend journalism and show the public and politicians that they do in fact need journalists. Then, maybe, the UK will become role models in press freedom again.

blog comments powered by Disqus