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  1. Media Law
January 20, 2014

International editors warn UK Government sending ‘negative message’ to world on press freedom

By Dominic Ponsford

The World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) two-day press freedom mission to the UK concluded with a warning that changes to press regulation and Government “intimidation” of The Guardian were sending a “negative message to the international community”.

The final communiqué from WAN-IFRA again failed to mention the 61 UK journalists arrested since April 2011.

One of the 22 arrested Sun journalists, online news editor Vince Soodin who has been charged under Operation Elveden, wrote to WAN-IFRA to express his concern that the body was apparently not looking at the issue of journalist arrests as part of its mission.

Many journalists have been arrested in dawn raids and spent more than a year on police bail only to have the charges against them dropped.

In response to Soodin’s inquiry, deputy chief executive of WAN-IFRA Larry Kilman said: “We are very concerned about the charges and the arrests and have included our concerns about them in our protests to the Government and even in a letter to the Queen.

“Our mission does not exist in a vacuum and isn't a one-off exercise – it is part of a larger campaign to try to help protect press freedom in the United Kingdom. It is unfortunate that a global organisation like ours, which has defended and promoted press freedom for 65 years, now has to turn its attention to a country with established democracy and press freedom traditions. It isn't something that can be taken for granted and, as recent events illustrate, it is clearly eroding.”

WAN-IFRA chief executive Vince Peyegne said in a statement: “Our visit has been unanimously welcomed as a timely and much needed initiative at a moment of great uncertainty for the future of the British press.

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“Our mission confirmed differences of opinion in terms of how the introduction of legislation governing the press will impact press freedom. It highlighted serious concerns regarding the independence from political involvement in that process, and how implementation of the legislation that underpins the Royal Charter could potentially be abused to restrict a free press both here in the UK and abroad.”

WAN-IFRA said that “of particular concern to the mission was the British Government’s reaction to the Guardian newspaper’s reporting of National Security Agency leaks provided by Edward Snowden”.

The delegation expressed “solidarity” with the position of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and reiterated their support for the Guardian’s publication of an issue that is clearly of great public interest – not just for the UK but worldwide.

This contrasts with the position of some UK editors, including Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail, who have condemned The Guardian over its exposure of surveillance techniques for allegedly putting British lives at risk.

On press regulation, WAN-IFRA said in its statement: “…general confusion surrounding changes to the self-regulation system for the press in the United Kingdom, coupled with the government’s chilling intimidation of the Guardian, is sending a negative message to the international community.

“That foreign governments may cite the current British example when reforming their own regulatory processes, as well as the inspiration they may take in how to treat investigative journalism, remain of particular concern and risks causing serious repercussions worldwide.

The mission, which took place on Thursday and Friday last week, met:

  • Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Maria Miller MP
  • John Whittingdale MP, Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee
  • Leading human rights lawyer Lord Lester
  • Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
  • The Independent newspaper group
  • Telegraph Media Group
  • Associated Newspapers
  • The Newspaper Society
  • The Newspaper Publishers Association
  • The Society of Editors
  • The Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust
  • The Press Complaints Commission
  • IPSO
  • Article 19
  • Index On Censorship
  • English PEN
  • Hacked Off group
  • Leading academics and media commentators.

A report detailing the mission’s findings will be published in February. 

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