The British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, named the defence of media freedom as his signature policy. He spoke of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 as a tragic case that prompted his decision and said he was “placing the resources of the Foreign Office behind the cause of media freedom”.
Bold words. The foreign secretary has promised to confront countries that jail journalists without good reason and help to impose a “diplomatic price”. His aim, as he wrote in the Evening Standard in November 2018, is to bring together countries which believe in this cause to mobilise a consensus behind the protection of journalists.
Cynics will say these pledges are bound to fail at the first clash with the UK’s strategic or commercial interests. Some may wince at his assertion that post-Brexit Britain will be uniquely positioned to forge a chain of democracies to push back against threats to the rules-based international order. But Hunt’s campaign is an important acknowledgement of the link between violent acts to silence journalists and the corruption of state power leading in many places to the death of democracy.
The elephant traps on the way to implementing these promises are legion. But he is right to try. Here are six essentials he would do well to bear in mind in formulating joined up policies:
1. It’s a deep-rooted problem
In the past 12 years, UNESCO’s figures show, more than 1,000 journalists were killed because of their work. Most died simply doing their job of reporting on organised crime, corruption and abuses of power. The term “privileged violence” is used by US national security expert Rachel Kleinfeld to explain this growing phenomenon.
Kleinfeld’s book A Savage Order highlights a “dirty secret” – that casual deadly violence has become endemic in many countries, as corrupt figures of authority misuse their power to kill opponents or get corrupt police and court systems to brand them as criminals. Journalists are often in that line of fire. They may well be pincered between violent extremists or brutal drugs gangs or on one side and hostile law enforcement officers who see them as an “enemy” on the other.
The recent killings of journalists illustrate this pattern: Khashoggi was the victim of state-sponsored murder after condemning his country’s rulers for making it into a “mental prison” with total information control. In Ghana, investigative journalist Ahmed Hussein-Suale Divela was shot dead after exposing corruption at the top levels of African football. Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was blown up in a car bomb attack after alleging high-level money laundering and bribery. The list is depressingly long.
2. It’s going to take political capital
Hunt’s initiative cannot succeed without politically painful steps to put the UK’s and its strategic allies’ own houses in order. British anti-terrorism laws and surveillance powers are seen as failing to adequately safeguard the legitimate work of journalists.
US army and military contractors have killed scores of journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan with complete impunity. British ministers have remained silent as Turkey has jailed well over 100 journalists and abandoned any semblance of due legal process for critics of the government.
To be fair, Hunt visited Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder – but it has since been reported that even as the foreign secretary was speaking out against the murder, UK trade officials were in the kingdom to discuss closer diplomatic ties and that arms deals have been unaffected.
3. Attacks on journalists are justice issues
International standards as expressed in UN resolutions and by the UN Human Rights Committee require states to put in place effective measures of protection when journalists face serious threats, and to carry out thorough and impartial investigations after a journalist is killed.
Yet most killings follow repeated threats of violence, and the conviction rate in cases of journalist killings remains shockingly low – only about 15% of cases have resulted in a conviction. Impunity still prevails over the killings of prominent journalists from Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya and Sri Lankan newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge more than a decade ago, to Caruana Galizia and Jan Kuciak in the past 18 months in Europe. The “unbreakable chain of democracies” envisaged by the foreign secretary cannot rest until the cultures of impunity that protect those who murder journalists have been swept away.
4. Renew UK human rights pledges
The post World War II framework of protections for press freedom and other basic rights was one of the great human achievements of the 20th century. The UK was a master builder of the system – for example by its early acceptance of the right of individual petition to the European Court of Human Rights.
More recent broadsides by British politicians, including by then then home secretary Theresa May in 2013, against rulings by the Strasbourg court have damaged the UK’s reputation as a champion of universal rights and have encouraged others to flaunt the system. British ministers should disavow them to regain credibility. The dreadful present record of most Council of Europe states in failing to provide legal protections for journalists under fire is documented in many official publications. The most recent report documented an adverse or deteriorating situation in 20 out of 47 member states in 2017.
A determined campaign by the UK and like-minded states to crack down on violence and judicial harassment of journalists across the European area should be a centrepiece of the new campaign.
5. Speak out
Because silence is the friend of the oppressors. In January 2019 the Strasbourg court ruled that the Azerbaijan authorities violated the rights to privacy and justice of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova in an infamous “sex video” case from 2012 for its failure to investigate attempts to blackmail her with sex tapes. That same year, world-famous war reporter Marie Covin was killed while in the field in Syria. A US court recently called it a targeted killing and found the Assad regime responsible.
Too often the victims and their relatives feel unsupported. The UK is seen by others as a quasi superpower in media and human rights protection thanks to the country’s wealth of expert legal and development NGOs, universities and media and information networks. Governments and other stakeholders share a vital interest in exposing the merchants of disinformation and propaganda at home and abroad.
The UK should make smarter use of its standing in international bodies, and as the current chair in office of the Commonwealth to make election monitoring mechanisms more effective and call out political interference in democratic processes, the independence of judiciaries and the media landscape wherever they occur.
6. Upgrade the toolkits of influence
Governments everywhere have grabbed extra powers to create “information spheres” to their own advantage, often by authoritarian methods and scapegoating journalists as enemies or traitors – as with both US president Donald Trump and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The task now is to re-win the arguments in favour of democratic checks and balances, particularly freedom of the press, which were assumed to be in the ascendant up to the end of the Cold War.
The UN has a wide-ranging Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The Council of Europe now cooperates with civil society organisations to run an online platform that challenges attacks on journalists and press freedom as they occur.
Other innovations such as the US Daniel Pearl Act and the Global Magnitsky Act arose in response to tragedy and to answer an evident need. The need is evident today, not only for journalists but for democratic societies everywhere. As Hunt rightly says, those values are under greater threat than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall.