The UK must reverse worrying press freedom trends

Earlier this week, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, drew a heated reaction from the media and the human rights community with her comments in a column for The Telegraph asserting that “real people” did not care about security, and arguing for restrictions on tools like WhatsApp that use end-to-end encryption, as part of the Government’s counter-extremism strategy.

Rudd’s comments were only the latest in a series of worrying moves against UK press freedom over the past year, which increasingly frequently is being trampled in the name of security. In recent months, Rudd has made prior comments suggesting that restrictions on encryption tools were on the horizon, backed up by Theresa May. Speaking about the London Bridge terror attack, the Prime Minister said the Internet must be further regulated to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online” and said she would change human rights laws if they “get in the way” of the Government’s anti-terrorism efforts.

Other senior figures have contributed to a perception of disdain for free expression and hostility towards the press. Just two days before the general election, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, said: “People have had enough about this free speech stuff", referring to terrorist recruitment material. A few weeks later, in an appearance on BBC’s Newsnight, the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, called for broadcasters to be “a bit patriotic” in their Brexit coverage.

This series of comments from top officials is even more problematic when viewed against the backdrop of an overall trend of growing restrictions on press freedom in the UK. The Investigatory Powers Act, adopted in November 2016, is not only the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history, it is also incredibly menacing for press freedom. In particular, it lacks sufficient protection mechanisms for whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources.

The Law Commission’s proposal to replace the Official Secrets Acts with a so-called new ‘Espionage Act’ is even more alarming. As envisaged, such a bill would make it easy to label journalists, bloggers, and others as ‘spies’ and jail them for up to 14 years for simply obtaining leaked information.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 also remains a potential threat to press freedom as it contains a cost-shifting provision that, if implemented, could hold publications that refuse to sign up to the state-approved regulator liable for all claims made against them, regardless of merit. RSF and other free speech groups have called on the Government to implement without delay the Conservative manifesto pledge to repeal Section 40 and not to proceed with phase two of the Leveson inquiry.

Many of these recent moves will have particularly serious implications for investigative journalists, who are finding it increasingly difficult to do their jobs in the UK. The impact will be a significant chilling effect that will limit investigations into sensitive topics – like corruption and human rights abuses – that are in the public’s interest, and that are vital to hold power to account. Self-censorship has become one of the biggest global threats to freedom of expression, and remains one of the hardest challenges to counter. We fear it is now on the rise in the UK.

Such moves have contributed to the UK dropping two places in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, launched at the end of April 2017. The Index currently ranks the UK as 40th out of 180 countries – a shocking placement for a country that has long been viewed as an international standard-setter.

RSF’s World Press Freedom Index is intended as an advocacy tool, and it is our hope that countries will examine the reasons for their scores and strive to improve their rankings. But the current state of affairs in the UK – bolstered by comments like the latest from Rudd – unfortunately leaves little hope for an improved UK ranking in the year to come.

This alarming trend must be reversed now, as a matter of priority. The Government should ensure that respect for press freedom and broader human rights is at the core of all practices and policies going forward. A balance must be found that protects those values most fundamental to our society. Sacrificing our right to freedom of expression does not make us safer, it simply makes us less free, and our government less accountable.

Rebecca is the UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders. Known internationally as Reporters sans frontières, RSF works to promote and defend freedom of information and freedom of the press around the world.

For more information on RSF’s work, visit www.rsf.org/en or follow RSF on Twitter at @rsf_inter and @rsf_en.