I am very grateful to have the opportunity to debate the very important issue of the international protection of journalists. I am also delighted to see so many colleagues present. We have only an hour so I will endeavour to keep my remarks brief. I thank all those who have helped me with the preparation for the debate and for the more general work they do in this field, particularly Reporters Sans Frontières, Index on Censorship, the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the BBC World Service.
Journalists play a vital role in a free society. Their role in exposing corruption, highlighting injustice and holding Governments to account helps to make a democracy function, but it does not always make them popular. Sadly, in authoritarian regimes, that often leads to imprisonment, being taken hostage, intimidation and sometimes even death.
There are varying figures for the record over the past year, but all agree that 2018 was one of the worst years on record for journalists being killed, imprisoned or held hostage. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, 80 journalists were killed in 2018 during the course of their duties; 348 are being held in prison and 60 held hostage. The countries with the worst records are perhaps predictable: in terms of deaths, they are Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, Yemen and India.
Perhaps the most high profile death was that of Jamal Khashoggi, who died in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It is reported that 11 people are on trial for that in Saudi Arabia, but we have little knowledge of the evidence to suggest that they ultimately bear responsibility. That death was condemned by Turkey—the country in which it took place—but Turkey’s record inspires little confidence. Turkey has 33 journalists imprisoned. One journalist, Pelin Ünker, was sentenced only in the last few days to a year’s imprisonment for her work in investigating the paradise papers. It is for that reason that international bodies have called for an international, independent investigation into what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. The worst countries for imprisonment of journalists are China, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
I want to mention in particular the work of the BBC World Service, which I have a particular regard for, and the Persian service of the BBC. Its journalists have suffered a relentless campaign against not just them but their families that are still in Iran. BBC World Service journalists in Russia have also found that their data has been published online with an encouragement to hound them. The BBC has made protests against that.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I chair the all-party parliamentary BBC group, as he will know from his previous role. It is the case that 152 named individuals, many of whom are based here in London, working for BBC Persia have been stopped from buying or selling property, and their families have been accused of the most hideous things, which is impacting their relatives in Iran. Does he join me in calling for the Minister to do everything he can to protect those individuals?
I absolutely join my hon. Friend. I will call upon the Minister to make it a routine matter to raise concerns about the safety of journalists whenever we have contact with countries where, sadly, imprisonments or deaths have taken place.
I rise as the chair of the cross-party group of the National Union of Journalists. I was very interested in the figures the right hon. Gentleman presented. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 94 journalists and media staff were killed in work-related incidents last year. In the light of that, does he agree that the UK Government might be called on to do everything possible to support the call for a new United Nations convention on the protection of journalists and media workers?
It is correct that there is a small difference in the figures from RSF and the International Federation. What we all agree is that the figures are extremely worrying and have been going up. That is the reason for the debate. I absolutely join the hon. Lady in calling on the Government to do more. I know the Minister will want to set that out in due course.
The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. I welcome this debate. Does he agree in the same vein that the Foreign Office has a very serious and important role in the protection of journalists, and that it must do all it can to protect journalists and our citizens wherever they are?
I agree. I was going to say and probably will say again that I absolutely welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to prioritise this issue and for the UK to take a lead internationally in pressing for more to be done. The hon. Lady’s calls have been heard in the Foreign Office and I hope this will prove an opportunity for the Minister to tell us a little about what is intended.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the IFJ. Will he join me in paying tribute to the work of the IFJ and the NUJ? Does he agree that strong trade unions are a force for good in protecting democracy and freedom of expression?
I do not always leap to say that trade unions are a force for good, but in this instance I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. The International Federation of Journalists does great work alongside the other organisations that I mentioned. This is a priority area for non-governmental organisations and a lot of work is being done but, unfortunately, one reason is that the record is so poor at present.
I talked about countries that perhaps will not have come as a great surprise—places such as China, which has the worst record for imprisonment, and Afghanistan and Syria. Sadly, it is also happening in Europe. I want particularly to mention the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta at the end of October 2017, and the death of Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and Victoria Marinova in Bulgaria. The climate that provokes hostility towards journalism is, to some extent, encouraged by intemperate remarks from people who really should know better. I do not want to single out President Trump, but I think his attacks on journalism generally have not helped in this regard. When someone such as the President of Czech Republic holds up a mock assault rifle labelled “for journalists”, that clearly will lead to a climate in which journalists have reason to fear.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that even in this country we have to be very careful what we say about our attitudes to journalists, as to politicians and everyone else. As a former journalist, I am well aware that one of the prerequisites for the job is the willingness to put yourself at risk in order to uncover public injustice in this country and abroad. Perhaps we need to be very wary in this country, as elsewhere in Europe, about the intemperate language we use.
I agree with the hon. Lady. Like almost everyone in this House I suspect, I have had occasion to be deeply unhappy about some of the things that journalists have done, but I recognise that freedom of the press is a vital component of a free society. Therefore, to some extent we have to take the reports that we do not like alongside those that we do.
Since we are talking about Europe, does my right hon. Friend welcome and support the work of the Council of Europe to protect journalists, and the new platform it has set up that makes it very public which journalists have been attacked and imprisoned unjustly?
I very much support the work of the Council of Europe. I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which also highlights journalistic abuses but, unfortunately, as I just said, Europe does not have a spotless record. Indeed, the new country holding the presidency of European Union, Romania, has a poor record of intimidation of journalists.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous with interventions. He will be aware that the Council of Europe has taken up the case of Mehman Huseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist and human rights activist who has been in prison for nearly two years for the so-called crime of slander. He has been on hunger strike for two weeks. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the British Government should also take up Mr Huseynov’s case and make representations to the Azerbaijani authorities?
I agree entirely with the hon. and learned Lady. I have my own criticisms of Azerbaijan and regard it as a badge of honour that I am blacklisted from visiting. That is a particularly bad case and he should be added to the list of those we are pursuing internationally at every opportunity.
I want to allow as many people as possible to speak, so I will make just two points to finish. First, as I indicated, I am encouraged by the Foreign Secretary’s statements that he wants to prioritise this. I understand that the British Government intends to organise an international conference on the subject of the protection of journalists later this year, which is a very welcome initiative. As the newly elected chair of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I intend to organise a parallel conference alongside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office one. While the FCO can try and reach agreement among Governments that more needs to be done on as wide a basis as possible, we can try to mobilise parliamentarians from different countries to give this priority. I look forward to working with the Minister in due course.
Secondly, there have been calls for a UN special representative for the safety of journalists. That would demonstrate the importance with which the issue is held by the UN. At present, it comes within a broader remit, but the specific appointment of somebody to highlight the safety of journalists would help. I understand that something like 30 countries have signed up to that proposition, so I hope the Government would consider adding our support in due course.
Sadly, there are a lot of cases and I could spend a great deal of time talking about them. Hon. Members have taken the opportunity to raise some of them. I am encouraged that so many of them have come to the debate, so I will deliberately keep what I say short so that as many as possible have the opportunity to contribute.