Press Freedom

Nasia Hadjigeorgiou (The UCL Student Human Rights Programme):

It seems that the media, a vital tool in keeping the public informed and encouraging debate, has been going through a massive crisis of its own; only this one is sneakier: it has been going on without us realizing for more than a decade and it is about to bring to its feet not just any industry, but the industry upon which we rely for our daily ‘education’. This was the message being delivered today in a packed room full of worried faces attending the debate for Press Freedom during The Convention on Modern Liberty. It is not only that the fundamental right of expression is being compromised, it is that this is only the peak of the iceberg since if we are not informed about the world we live in, we cannot be critical of it and push for its improvement. This is even more so, in a country such as the UK, with relatively weak democratic institutions that has so far relied on its strong democratic culture to keep it in check. But cultures can be eroded and arguably this erosion is already under way.

Fatima Bhutto, a journalist from Pakistan, described the horrifying situation in her own country which includes censoring anything that can be transmitted electronically: faxes, telephones, e-mails, even text messages. A person living in Pakistan and sending information that the government disagrees with to his email address list, can be liable under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act which allows for prison sentences ranging from three years to life. Following a governmental unilateral decision, part of the country is now governed by Taliban law, yet this was not even discussed in the press; clearly, lack of freedom of expression makes the implementation of unpopular decisions that much easier.

One could say, that while we may find this sad, worrying even, it doesn’t really touch us, it doesn’t really affect the liberty we, citizens of one of the most well established democracies in the world, have been taking for granted for so long. However, the fact of the matter is that British politicians might not be on the same page as Pakistani ones, but they are definitely reading the same newspaper.

As Alan Rusbridger, editor in Chief of the Guardian pointed out, this unprecedented crisis is due to libel tourism and the cost this carries as a result. Libel laws in England and Wales are much more claimant friendly than in any other European country and it is for this reason that despite the crazy amounts English lawyers charge for – going up to 140 times more than the average European State! – claimants still rush into the country to make their case in front of an English court. Who can blame the US Congress for recently passing a law that makes UK libel judgments unenforceable?

If a newspaper does not dare to report on an issue it considers important, say tax avoidance, for fear of being sued or because of the cost of advisers it has to employ to make sure it got the law right, how is the average person to obtain information on this issue? Or do we expect anyone to sit down and read the relevant Act in his spare time, when possibly even MPs who voted for it did not go through the proposed exercise? And if the average person is not told about these issues, how is he to exercise his critical thinking in the next general election? We might not be censored by strict legislation such as the Pakistani Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, but that is arguably unnecessary when the market itself imposes such prohibitive costs on investigative journalism.

However, convenient as it may be to blame the politicians for this whole mess, the journalists themselves are at least to bear some of the responsibility. Part of the reason the average UK citizen believes in his uncompromising liberty, is because he reads about it every morning in the newspaper. When the whistleblower who came forward with information that Blair and Bush had discussed the bombing of Al-Jazeera was arrested, together with the two journalists who reported the story, the press didn’t even flinch. How is Parliament to be motivated to protect the press, when journalists don’t even pick up their pen to report the danger they are in? As Andrew Gilligan pointed out, the press needs to start getting angry – and it needs to start doing so now, while it still can.

David Davis MP pointed out in his key note address that Britain might not be a police state yet, but when it becomes one, it will be too late to do anything about it. It is for this reason that the press needs to start fighting against the greatest challenge it has faced so far – not only for its own survival, but also for ours.

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