FCO's campaign on media freedom lacks focus, committee says

Report says UK should consider sanctions against political actors targeting journalists

The Foreign Office’s campaign of resistance to the worldwide attack on media freedom lacks focus and should include the threat of sanctions against countries or political leaders – including Saudi Arabia – that intimidate or arrest dissident reporters, the all-party foreign affairs select committee of MPs will say.

In a report issued today the committee also proposes a special class of fast-track British visa for journalists threatened or intimidated by repressive states.

The Foreign Office has made media freedom its number one campaign priority this year, hosting a conference in London at a cost of £2.4m and asking the barrister Amal Clooney to act as the special envoy of the previous UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt. Clooney is chairing a high-level panel of legal experts on media freedom, one of the few signs of a sustained campaign on the issue.

The MPs report that nearly half the funds set aside by the Foreign Office to defend media freedom was spent on the two-day conference in July and warn “there are concerns that the FCO has allocated too few resources, given too little detail about how it will fulfil its campaign, and taken too passing an interest in how to make it sustainable. There is anxiety that this vital initiative by the FCO risks becoming a disappointment.”

Those fears have been exacerbated by Hunt’s departure. While he put his personal energy into the campaign, his successor, Dominic Raab, may not be as enthused.

Even under Hunt the MPs found the FCO campaign “too reliant on the word or the goodwill of those with a record of abusing the media, especially of the governments who have been amongst the worst perpetrators”.

The committee heard numerous instances where domestic laws protected free press only in theory, with autocratic politicians preventing notionally independent national judiciaries from enforcing these laws, adding to the wider sense that politicians could breach human rights with impunity.

The committee will point out ministerial plans to establish an autonomous UK human rights sanctions regime on leaving the EU, adding more independence would provide an opportunity for ministers to use sanctions and travel bans to punish those that restrict media freedom.

The MPs will point out that even though the government has said stronger international legal protections may be required, ministers are not yet supporting the draft UN convention to protect journalists becoming law, saying it is unnecessary.

The Foreign Office insisted it shines a light on breaches of media freedom by autocratic leaders, but campaigners pointed to its reluctance to intervene with forceful language or action in cases involving Saudi Arabia, Malta and Turkey, three countries with whom the UK has strong commercial links.

In particular, ministers were told not to hold back in instances when close British strategic allies such as Saudi Arabia were accused of crimes, such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The report points out that Canada, the UK’s partner in the media freedom conference, has imposed sanctions on Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi killing.

The MPs will argue the FCO “must do more to shame perpetrators, including when those perpetrators are governments. There is a concern that the Foreign Office preferred method is a firm word in the ear. The UK is seen as quite literally trading away its values.”

The current UK position on Khashoggi is that it is awaiting the outcome of the trial of those Saudi Arabian government members charged with killing the journalist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The FCO had acknowledged in a submission the role of the Saudi government in the killing, the committee will point out, with MPs concluding that “ministers should build on that acknowledgment and work with international partners to achieve accountability through public criticism and sanctions against Saudi perpetrators”.

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

The foreign affairs committee cite a Unesco report that an average of one journalist has died every four days between 2008 and 2018 due to their work. Most were not killed while reporting on war, but deliberately targeted. Their deaths overwhelmingly go unpunished.

Tom Tugendhat, the foreign affairs committee chairman, said: “When journalists lose their rights, we all do. Democracy is not just about votes, it’s how we talk to each other, how we give opinions a voice. That’s why the media matters. It challenges the lie that there is such a thing as ‘the will of the people’. In every community and country, the people have many, different, opinions and a free press is essential to ensure they can be heard.”


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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