Following government harassment of journalists and editors, the UK has fallen from number 29 to 33 on Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index.
Reporters Without Borders (RWB) identified a decline in press freedom in the UK, due to the government’s response to publication by the Guardian newspaper of the intelligence files leaked by Edward Snowden, which exposed the mass surveillance programmes of US and UK intelligence agencies, the NSA and GCHQ.
The actions of the government in its attempt to silence the leaks has triggered an international outcry over the implications for a press freedom in the UK.
Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, noted in November that the government’s actions against the reporting of the leaks ‘is doing serious damage to the UK’s international reputation for investigative journalism and press freedom’. Dunja Mijatovic, representative for media freedom at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, yesterday commented that, ’The continual accusations and attacks on the Guardian, their editor-in-chief and journalists by leading politicians is nothing but harassment and intimidation’.
The RWB report highlights the ‘disgraceful pressure’ the government has put on the Guardian newspaper which included questioning by the home affairs select committee of Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, concerning the paper’s handling of the leaked files. Scotland Yard, it has been reported, has also ‘assigned a squad of detectives to investigate the role of the Guardian newspaper in the Snowden affair’.
‘Both the US and UK authorities seem obsessed with hunting down whistleblowers instead of adopting legislation to rein in abusive surveillance practices that negate privacy’, the RWB report noted. This has stretched to the use of the Terrorism Act against David Miranda, partner and assistant to journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has worked with newspapers to publish the Snowden files. Miranda was detained by the Metropolitan Police at Heathrow airport for nine hours while travelling to Brazil with encrypted intelligence files. The basis for Miranda’s detention, the Metropolitan Police have stated, is that he was considered to be promoting a ‘political or ideological cause’.
Reporters Without Borders has previously expressed concern for British journalist and Wikileaks editor Sarah Harrison, and has called for assurances from the government that Harrison ‘can return to her country safely’.
The recent actions on the part of the UK government serve to create a climate of fear and insecurity for journalists, and represent a direct attack on the independence of the press and journalists’ ability to operate freely.
Rather than standing behind the Guardian in its attempts to report on issues of vital public interest, much of the press has allied itself with government and security officials who wish to call a halt to the newspaper’s work.
An editorial in the Daily Mail, owned by Lord Rothermere, labelled the Guardian the ‘paper that helps Britain’s enemies’, while columnist for the Sun, Rod Liddle, posed the question, in an article headlined ‘Guardian treason helping terrorists’, ‘could a newspaper do anything worse?’
As the Leveson Inquiry revealed, a concentrated media results in a handful of powerful media groups with close ties to government, and little interest in producing important public interest journalism which holds those in power to account.
When the media excludes voices critical of the state and attacks journalists who dare to hold power to account, the ability of journalists to operate independently and without government oversight is at risk.
We need a free and open media capable of informing citizens of issues of public interest.
This post was published on the Media Reform Coalition Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.