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September 9, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:19am

Journalists barred from Government-backed arms fair in ‘shameful breach of press freedom’

By Charlotte Tobitt

Two journalists have been barred from a major arms fair being held in London this week, a decision which freedom of expression campaigners claimed “undermines the Government’s commitment to media freedom”.

Middle East Eye journalist Ian Cobain (pictured) and Private Eye’s Solomon Hughes have been denied press accreditation for the Defence and Security Equipment International event running from tomorrow until Friday.

The event is the largest of its kind and is supported by the Ministry of Defence and Department for International Trade. It will take place at the Excel exhibition centre in London’s Docklands area.

The journalists were told by organisers the event had reached its capacity for the media and that specialist correspondents were being prioritised, despite the fact they both applied well in advance last month.

An email to Hughes from the press team representing DSEI, seen by Press Gazette, said: “You’ll understand that due to the high level of interest, we prioritise defence and security industry correspondents and publications.

“We already have over 450 registered to attend and therefore we will not be able to register you this time.”

Meanwhile Cobain, whose application was reviewed by the DSEI security team, was told: “After reviewing your application we are unable to establish that you are a journalist/editor/production team member in a relevant field.”

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Cobain, who previously worked for the Guardian and the Times, has reported on six wars and currently writes about related issues including UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

He told Press Gazette: “I suggest rather than them being concerned I wasn’t working in a relevant area, I think they regard my journalism as far too relevant, maybe dangerously so.

“They don’t want people reporting in anything other than an uncritical fashion.”

Cobain, who intends to report as best he can from outside the event tomorrow, added: “I have asked them for a real explanation and put it to them that what they are doing is a breach of press freedom and they haven’t replied.”

Hughes writes about defence and security issues for Private Eye and attended the event, which takes place every two years, in 2013, 2015 and 2017.

He told Press Gazette his prior accreditation made him think “the claim they are too full to let me in is nonsense.

“DSEI takes place at Excel in London, which is massive. When I was there last, I could see the halls are big enough for arms firms to display tanks, helicopters and warplanes. They even have warships round the back.

“The idea they could not fit in a couple more journalists is absurd.”

A DSEI spokesperson told Press Gazette: “There has been a high level of interest in attending DSEI 2019 and over 500 media from across the world are due to be attending the exhibition, including outlets such as the BBC, the Guardian, the Times, the Independent, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as representatives from a wide range of industry trade publications and national media from countries around the world.

“Individual journalists are required to apply for accreditation and priority is given where possible to those with interests in the defence and security equipment sectors.

“Each application and the information submitted is assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Cobain told Press Gazette that although DSEI is entitled to assess each journalist on a case-by-case basis, “in doing so they are infringing on press freedoms”.

The National Union of Journalists, of which Cobain has been a member since 1982, has written to the DSEI asking it to reconsider.

Index on Censorship has issued an alert to the Council of Europe on the incident on the grounds it could have a chilling effect on press freedom.

Index’s policy research and advocacy officer Jessica Ni Mhainin said the freedom of expression campaign group was “very concerned” about the decision.

“It is difficult to understand how and why the DSEI’s security team could have come to this decision and it raises serious questions about whether it was politically motivated, particularly given that it came hours after a UN report warned that the UK may have been complicit in Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

“As a UK Government-backed event, the DSEI’s decision undermines the Government’s commitment to media freedom. Press freedom is essential to hold power to account and on the basis that we consider this a violation, we have filed an alert with the Council of Europe.”

Cobain told Press Gazette he has never in his 35-year career been refused entry to an event which admitted journalists.

“I have worked in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan,” he said. “I’ve worked all over the world and I have never yet been refused access to an event to which other journalists have been admitted.

“Some people have suggested to me I should be proud but frankly I just want to do my job.

“The idea that it should happen in the UK is slightly shameful and I am concerned frankly that the British defence industry… is so cowardly. It should be robust enough to be able to deal with reporting that is critical as well as that which is uncritical.”

Picture: Phil Coburn

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