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March 25, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:09am

Media minister John Whittingdale says UK ‘needs to call out countries where press freedom is under threat’

By Freddy Mayhew

UK media minister John Whittingdale has said “every country needs to look to see what more can be done” to defend journalists and journalism as new Press Gazette research reveals that a poor record on press freedom is no barrier to a country attracting foreign investment.

China, Russia, Mexico, India and Singapore are among the top 20 countries that attracted the most foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2019, but all have critical issues around media freedom, our analysis shows.

Whittingdale, who served as secretary of state from May 2015 to July 2016 and returned to Government as Minister for Media and Data last year, also chairs the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, which this month launched a national action plan to better protect UK journalists from threats of violence and intimidation.

The Tory MP also worked with former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt to set up the Global Conference for Media Freedom, held in London in 2019.

Whittingdale said press freedom abuses in countries such as China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia – which range from intimidation and unlawful imprisonment to alleged extrajudicial killings – are a “matter of concern”, but the answer was not to “cut off all contact with them”.

“We will always make clear our concern about any infringement of press freedom in these countries,” he told Press Gazette.

“We have made plain that we will take action, specifically through sanctions, against any individual shown to have been involved in the persecution of journalists and we will raise the matter.”

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Britain has imposed sanctions on 20 individuals suspected of involvement in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but has failed to act against the Middle Eastern kingdom as a whole or its ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

This is despite a US intelligence report, made public last month, that claims Bin Salman approved the killing of Khashoggi. The US has also stopped short of imposing sanctions on Bin Salman, but has targeted a further 76 Saudi nationals in a new visa ban under President Joe Biden.

Khashoggi was strangled to death at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on 2 October 2017 as he went to collect divorce papers while his fiancée waited for him outside. His body has never been found. Twenty-six men are on trial in absentia in Turkey over the crime. Saudi Arabia has found eight men guilty behind closed doors, commuting death sentences for five.

A UN report has said Bin Salman should face further investigation over the death of Khashoggi, who it said was the “victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law”.

Bin Salman has denied ordering the killing, which the kingdom has described as a “rogue operation” carried out by some of its agents.

Asked to comment on the US report and give a view on whether the UK had done enough to sanction Saudi Arabia over the killing, Whittingdale said his brief was limited to the UK, but added: “…we do need to call out other countries where press freedom is under threat.”

Saudi Arabia is Britain’s 28th-largest trading partner, with total UK exports to Saudi Arabia worth £5.5bn and total UK imports worth £2.2bn over the year to the end of Q3 2020, official government figures show. Outward FDI (from the UK to Saudi Arabia) amounted to £5.3bn for the period.

China, which does not have a free press, was the UK’s third-largest trading partner over the year to the end of Q3 2020, figures show, accounting for 6.7% of total trade, worth £31.4bn in UK exports and £49.7bn in UK imports. Outward FDI amounted to £10.7bn for the period.

Whittingdale said that while some of the countries where press freedom abuses were taking place were Britain’s allies, “that is not to say… we don’t call out where we are concerned”. Pointing to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, an EU member state, he added: “Every country needs to look to see what more can be done.”

He said of China, which ranks second, behind the US, on our chart showing the amount of inflowing FDI into each country in 2019, that it is “a country with which we do an awful lot of business and have invested a substantial amount”. But he added: “On the other hand we have made our unhappiness around human rights generally in China, but also about press freedom, absolutely plain and we will continue to do that.”

The UK is signed up to the Global Media Freedom Coalition, which includes a pledge to “stand together to intervene at the highest level with the governments of countries where media freedom is at risk and to show solidarity with countries that work to build media freedom”.

Whittingdale said the UK’s involvement in the coalition and its national action plan on journalist safety in the UK is part of putting its own house in order before criticising others.

“What I didn’t want was for any of these countries to be able to turn around and say: ‘It’s all very well criticising us [but] look at your own record.’ I want the UK to be seen as a pioneer of trying to do more to ensure that journalists can carry out their work in safety and free from… abuse.”

But closer to home, Boris Johnson has faced criticism over his handling of the press:

Whittingdale said that the Prime Minister’s statement in the introduction to the action plan was a sign of his support. “The Prime Minister doesn’t normally provide personal quotes for government publications, but I think he did so because he’s a journalist by training and so he absolutely recognises the importance of journalism.”

Johnson, who edited The Spectator and has written regularly for The Telegraph, wrote that “freedom of speech and a free press are at the very core of our democracy, and journalists must be able to go about their work without being threatened”. He added: “The cowardly attacks and abuse directed at reporters for simply doing their job cannot continue.”

Whittingdale said the Government remained “committed to press freedom” and still intended to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 that would force newspapers to pay both sides’ legal costs in defamation and privacy cases, win or lose.

“We will continue to do all we can to support press freedom,” he added. “The press have to act responsibly, and we believe in regulation, but we don’t believe in government diktat.”

Following Amal Clooney’s departure as the UK’s special envoy for press freedom last year, the Foreign Office has confirmed there are currently no plans to find a replacement for the role. Lord Tariq Ahmad is the serving minister for media freedom.

The UK supports UNESCO’s Global Media Defence Fund, having committed £3m over five years. The fund supports not-for-profit groups working to improve media protection and journalists’ access to legal assistance.

Picture: Parliament

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