The Minister for Media and Data
Mr John Whittindale
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate and on his work to promote media freedom. I am particularly grateful to him for taking over as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, which I chaired until February 2020.
A lot of Members have focused on dreadful abuses of media freedom in different countries around the world, and so to some extent Members might have expected a response from a Foreign Office Minister. The Minister who has specific responsibility for the subject is my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, who is doing a great job championing media freedom internationally. He is obviously prevented from taking part in this debate in our House, but I work with him closely.
It is encouraging that there has been widespread recognition across this Chamber that media freedom is a crucial component of an open, democratic society. We may not always like or agree with what is written about us in the press, but the role of a free media in holding Government to account, in exposing corruption or malpractice and in providing trusted, reliable information and reporting has never been more important. However, media freedom is under increasing threat across the world. A number of Members pointed out that 50 journalists were killed last year while doing their job. According to Reporters Without Borders, which does a terrific job of monitoring that and campaigning, already this year 13 more journalists or media assistants have been killed, and there are currently 439 in prison. The summary analysis of its World Press Freedom Index 2021, published in April, said that journalism is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked in the index; that the coronavirus pandemic has been used by Governments as cover for blocking journalists’ access to information; and that journalists find it increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories, especially in Asia, the middle east and Europe.
I join a number of those who have contributed in paying tribute to the courage of journalists working in some of the most difficult, dangerous and challenging parts of the world. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) reminded us of our own Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria along with her photographer, French journalist Rémi Ochlik, in 2012. I am sure he heard, as I have, Paul Conroy, who was also badly injured at that time, talk about how the shelling that killed Marie Colvin and her colleague was deliberately aimed at them because they were journalists.
It is because media freedom is so important that the Government have championed the cause of media freedom around the world. As has been mentioned, in July 2019 the UK hosted the Global Conference for Media Freedom, which led to the establishment of the Media Freedom Coalition of like-minded countries that pledged to collaborate to improve the media freedom environment across the world. The UK continues to co-chair the coalition. It is still a relatively young body, but it is growing and currently has 47 members. This year the coalition has already issued statements about China, Belarus and Myanmar, as well as a statement marking World Press Freedom Day. We are working on giving the coalition more impact on the ground by encouraging local collaboration in countries with those who are better able to engage with Governments and lobby them directly.
A number of countries have been mentioned, but I think it is important to speak about the most recent appalling example of the danger faced by journalists, which is of course the hijacking of an aeroplane and then the detention of Roman Protasevich in Belarus. In 2018, I led an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Belarus. There was no question: the country was not democratic or free, and journalism was under terrific pressure. We met independent journalists operating there. Reporters Without Borders has assessed Belarus as the most dangerous country in Europe for media actors. I am pleased that the Government are supporting independent media organisations in that country, and we have already committed £2.7 million of support for independent media in Belarus. Alongside the Government, the IPU has been very active in championing media freedom and organising conferences, and I can remember listening to the relatives of journalists operating for the BBC’s Persian Service. The Persian Service is not able to operate in Iran. Its journalists broadcast from London on the BBC, but their relatives in Iran are being subjected to harassment and intimidation. We will continue to high- light that and to put pressure on the Iranian Government to respect their freedom.
As I said, the World Press Freedom Index, which several Members have referred to and which was published in April, showed that the UK had risen by two places, to No. 33. It is obviously good news that we have gone up in the rankings, but to some extent that is because other countries have gone down. It demonstrates that we undoubtedly still have a lot of work to do. The death of Lyra McKee, a journalist in Belfast, is happily a very rare example of where a journalist in this country has lost their life in the course of their work, but there is no question that journalists in the UK still suffer dreadful harassment and abuse. The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) mentioned Amy Fenton. I have met and talked to her about the abuse that occurred, which led her to have to seek police protection. It was for that reason that we established the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, which brings together senior figures from law enforcement, the police, the prosecuting authorities, the campaigning organisations, the Government, and both the Society of Editors and the National Union of Journalists. The aim was to demonstrate a shared commitment to ensure that journalists are free to carry out their vital role without threats of violence.
We have now published the first ever national action plan for the safety of journalists, which sets out the actions that all the partners will take to protect journalists. Every police force will have a dedicated officer to whom journalists can make a complaint, or whom they can contact in the event of abuse against them. The police will be trained, particularly about the importance of safeguarding journalists. Employers will provide extra training, and the platforms where a lot of the abuse occurs have said that they will establish designated journalism safety officers.
There is still more to be done, and one of the first things that we want to do is to get more evidence about the scale of the problem. We will shortly be publishing the call for evidence, and I hope that any journalist operating in the UK who has suffered in such a way will respond to it. I am delighted that our work on that has already been praised at the Stockholm Conference on Media Freedom in the OSCE region, and has perhaps contributed to the promotion in the ranking of the UK on the World Press Freedom Index.
In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), I can confirm that the UK is using our presidency of the G7 to highlight the importance of media freedom. We will be asking G7 members to reconfirm their commitment to defend media freedom and to provide practical, technical and programmatic support to journalists and media, including through the global media defence fund. The fund was set up with the help of the UK and UNESCO, which currently manages it, and we continue to support it. In 2019, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office pledged £3 million to the fund over the next five years, and we are delivering on that commitment. To date, the fund has supported a variety of activities, such as pursuing strategic litigation with the goal of challenging laws and regulations that infringe on media freedom in Zanzibar, and investigative journalism that is focused on cases of threatened, prosecuted, imprisoned, attacked or assassinated journalists in the Philippines.
I thank the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom for its contribution to international efforts to promote media freedom. We are now working through all the recommendations of its report, with a view to responding. Just before I finish, I will touch on an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe and by the right hon. Member for Islington North—the threat to sustainable journalism, especially traditional media, as a result of the growth of social media and the power of the online platforms. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that issue; it is a matter of considerable concern. As he well knows, we have received a number of reports highlighting the need for action. He will also be aware that we recently established the Digital Markets Unit in the Competition and Markets Authority, which will bring in mandatory codes of conduct to ensure that the relationship between publishers—in other words, media—and the platforms is not abused by the over-dominance and anti-competitive practice of the platforms.
There is still a lot of work to do, but I am determined that this country should address the concerns that have been rightly expressed today about what happens in the UK, and I am also determined that we should continue to champion media freedom wherever it is under threat across the world. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe for giving us the opportunity to show that this House is united in that ambition.