FCO media freedom campaign lacks focus, committee says | freedom of the press

The Foreign Office’s campaign to resist the global attack on media freedom lacks precision and should include the threat of sanctions against countries or political leaders – including Saudi Arabia – who intimidate or arrest journalists dissenters, the all-party foreign affairs select committee say.

In a report published today, the commission also proposes a special fast-track UK visa class for journalists threatened or intimidated by repressive states.

The Foreign Office has made media freedom its number one campaign priority this year, holding a conference in London at a cost of £2.4million and asking lawyer Amal Clooney to act as as special envoy of former British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Clooney chairs a high-level legal panel on media freedom, one of the few signs of a sustained campaign on the issue.

MPs report that almost half of the funds set aside by the Foreign Office to defend media freedom were spent on the two-day conference in July and warn ‘there are concerns the FCO has allocated too few resources, given too few details about how he will fill his campaign, and also care about how to make it sustainable. There are fears that this vital FCO initiative could turn into a disappointment.

These fears were heightened by Hunt’s departure. While he has put his personal energy into the campaign, his successor, Dominic Raab, may not be so enthusiastic.

Even under Hunt, MPs found the FCO campaign “too dependent on the word or goodwill of those who have a history of abusing the media, especially governments who have been among the worst authors”.

The committee heard many cases where national laws only protected press freedom in theory, with autocratic politicians preventing nominally independent national judiciaries from enforcing those laws, adding to the broader sense that politicians might be violating human rights with impunity.

The committee will highlight ministerial plans to establish a stand-alone UK human rights sanctions regime on leaving the EU, adding that greater independence would give ministers the ability to use sanctions and travel bans to punish those who restrict media freedom.

MPs will point out that although the government has said stronger international legal protections may be needed, ministers are not yet backing the draft UN convention to protect journalists which becomes law, saying it is not necessary.

The Foreign Office has insisted it shines a light on abuses of media freedom by autocratic rulers, but campaigners have pointed to its reluctance to intervene with strong language or actions in cases involving the Saudi Arabia, Malta and Turkey, three countries with which the UK has close commercial ties. .

In particular, ministers have been told not to hold back in cases where close British strategic allies such as Saudi Arabia are accused of crimes, such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The report highlights that Canada, the UK’s partner in the media freedom conference, has imposed sanctions on Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder.

MPs will say the FCO “must do more to shame perpetrators, including where those perpetrators are governments. It is feared that the preferred method of the Foreign Office is a firm word in the ear. The UK is seen as literally sacrificing its values.

The UK’s current stance on Khashoggi is that it is awaiting the outcome of the trial of members of the Saudi government accused of killing the journalist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The FCO acknowledged in a communication the Saudi government’s role in the killing, the committee will point out, with MPs concluding that “ministers should build on this recognition and work with international partners to achieve accountability through public criticism and sanctions against Saudi authors. ”.

It has been widely reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was aware of the plan to kill Khashoggi.

The Foreign Affairs Committee cites a Unesco report that on average a journalist died every four days between 2008 and 2018 due to their work. Most were not killed while reporting on the war, but deliberately targeted. Most of their deaths go unpunished.

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “When journalists lose their rights, we all lose them. Democracy is not just about votes, it’s the way we talk to each other, the way we give voice to opinions. This is why the media are important. He challenges the lie that there is such a thing as “the will of the people”. In every community and country, people have many different opinions and a free press is essential to ensure they can be heard.

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