Council of Europe issues media freedom alert over UK government blacklisting of investigative journalists

Formal warning comes as government claims environmental protesters are a threat to press freedom

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Sunday 06 September 2020 09:50 BST
Extinction Rebellion blocks News Corp Printworks in Broxbourne

The UK government has been formally warned for threatening press freedom after it blacklisted a group of investigative journalists and denied them access to information.

The Council of Europe issued the Level 2 "media freedom alert" after Ministry of Defence press officers refused to deal with Declassified UK, a website focusing on foreign and defence policy stories.

The intervention by the Council ironically comes as Boris Johnson and his ministers condemned environmental activists as a threat to press freedom for blockading printing plants in protest at newspapers' climate coverage.

Britain has been a founding member of the Council of Europe since it was set up in 1949 under the Treaty of London. It monitors human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe and is responsible for overseeing the European Convention of Human Rights.

The organisation's media freedom alert system catalogues threats to media freedom such as attacks on the physical safety of journalists, harassment and intimidation, detention and imprisonment.

The new alert, issued by the organisation on Friday, was classified by the watchdog as an "act having a chilling effect on media freedom" and put under the "state" category – because the British state was the source of the threat.

The UK joins Russia, which had an alert issued this week after an blogger critical of the government was hospitalised by two unknown assailants, and Turkey, where a former TV presenter was arrested and charged with membership of a terrorist organisation.

The International Press Institute (IPI) wrote to the Ministry of Defence on Friday urging the government to rethink its crackdown said the move appeared to be taken because of the outlet's critical editor line.

"IPI is concerned this sudden decision to exclude Declassified UK from a MoD comment, and the subsequent lack of communication on the matter, appears to have been taken in retaliation for its previous critical reporting and editorial stance on the UK armed forces," IPI’s Deputy Director Scott Griffen said.

"It goes without saying that the exclusion of a media publication by a government ministry due to its investigative reporting would undermine press freedom and set a worrying precedent for other journalists whose job it is to report in the public interest on the British military. Criticism should be no reason to discriminate against a media publication.

"In contrast, tough journalism by outlets such as Declassified UK on matters such as the UK’s foreign and military affairs, uncomfortable though it often may be for those in power, is crucial for a transparent and functioning democracy."

The Council of Europe's media freedom alert says the journalist at Declassified UK was denied a response to a question about the war in Yemen after being asked “What sort of angle have you taken on the war in Yemen?” and then later told by a press officer at the department that “we no longer deal with your publication”.

The last time the UK was issued with a state-focused media freedom alert was in May this year, when an OpenDemocracy journalists was banned from asking questions as the UK government's daily coronavirus press conference.

The government was also criticised in February after Downing Street excluded some outlets, including The Independent, from technical briefing, with an official telling excluded journalist: “We are welcome to brief whoever we want whenever we want.”

Hours after the latest media freedom alert was issues, the prime minister Mr Johnson said: "A free press is vital in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account on issues critical for the future of our country, including the fight against climate change. It is completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news in this way."

Mr Johnson was referring to blockades of printing plants for the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Sun, and The Times by Extinction Rebellion activists. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, issued a similar message, warning the protesters that their "attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable".

The Council allows states identified in media freedom alerts a right of reply, but says it has not yet received one from the British government. The Ministry of Defence press office was not available for comment when contacted by The Independent on Saturday afternoon.

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