"We organise this gathering not only to recognise the importance of journalism & to emphasise our support for media freedom but also to help strengthen the relationships between us. We value our friendships across the region"
James Cleverly, UK-Arab commentators forum
James Cleverly, Middle East Minister at the foreign office, hailed British “support for media freedom” at an event for journalists and media commentators from across the Middle East and North Africa.
His claim that Britain supported media freedom is only partly true. According to respected press monitoring group Reporters Without Borders Britain rates 33rdon the world Press Freedom Index, just behind South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago.
It explains: “Despite the UK government’s stated commitment to defending global media freedom, domestic restrictions remained cause for concern. A secret government unit appeared to serve as a clearing house for freedom of information requests, and critical media outlets found themselves blacklisted or facing other restrictions. Critical reporting on the government’s Covid-19 response was met with vindictive official reactions.”
Reporters Without Borders adds that “The detention of Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange particularly blighted the UK’s press freedom record. Assange’s extradition proceedings were marred by extensive barriers to open justice. Despite deciding against the US extradition request in January 2021, the court denied Assange’s bail application. Assange’s mental and physical health remain at high risk in Belmarsh prison, where Covid-19 infections have been rampant.”
Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns and UK Bureau Director of Reporteurs Sans Frontier told us: "Although the UK government has taken some important steps in recent years to promote media freedom at the international level, this approach has not been applied equally from country to country. There has been much more political willingness to address media freedom concerns in states such as China, Russia and Belarus, but silence on the alarming situation that continues in, for example, Saudi Arabia, where 32 journalists remain imprisoned while we are still fighting for justice for Jamal Khashoggi nearly three years after his horrific assassination. We need to see more consistent action to address such violations with the worst offenders.
"Further, the press freedom climate within the UK is not what it should be, with a number of worrying trends such as alarming proposals to reform the Official Secrets Acts that could see journalists jailed for up to 14 years for "espionage", severe restrictions on freedom of information, and an increasingly hostile climate towards journalists who are facing growing online and offline attacks simply for doing their jobs. It sends very mixed signals when one part of government is publicly championing media freedom whilst other parts of government - and individual officials - are actively working to undermine it. There's an urgent need for this government to commit clearly and consistently, in actions and in words, to ensure the protection of media freedom and safety of journalists before the situation deteriorates more severely."
James Cleverly’s claim that Britain supports media freedom does not withstand serious scrutiny.