Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

United Nation criticizes British government’s attitude toward press freedom

22 November 2013

The United Nations official for the promotion and protection of free expression warned that Britain is damaging the country’s reputation for press freedom and investigative journalism by its actions against The Guardian since its revelations of secret surveillance programs.

Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur, said he’s alarmed by British politicians’ reactions to the newspaper’s handling of the leaks from Edward Snowden. La Rue also stated that national security can’t be used as an argument against news outlets for publishing information that is in the public interest. Members of the British parliament accuse the newspaper of violating The Terrorism Act 2000 while handling leaks by the former National Security Agency contractor.

On Nov. 9, British parliamentarian and former defense secretary Liam Fox sent a letter to the director of public prosecutions asking the agency to pursue possible criminal charges against The Guardian. Fox urged the director to determine whether the newspaper breached counter-terrorism laws by sending copies of Snowden’s material abroad and partnering with foreign publications like The New York Times.

"I have been absolutely shocked about the way the Guardian has been treated, from the idea of prosecution to the fact that some members of parliament even called it treason," La Rue said.

The New York Times wrote in an editorial that press freedom in the UK is being challenged by Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition. The editorial board pointed out that Britain’s constitution doesn’t guarantee press freedom and said parliamentary committees are taking advantage of that fact to harass The Guardian.

International publishers are concerned UK’s actions will serve as a blueprint for non-democratic regimes to justify their own repressive actions. On Nov. 3, a group of 70 human rights organizations from 40 countries sent a letter to Cameron stating their concern over the UK’s reaction. The group wrote that the actions by the British government violate freedom of expression and said using national security laws against the media will create a hostile and intimidating environment that discourages those who could “reveal uncomfortable truths.”

A group of editors in Sri Lanka also sent a letter to Cameron urging him to stop proposed newspaper regulations. The group called Britain's reputation a "shining example to be followed" and said the minister should not underestimate the concern from Sri Lanka, a country which just held the Commonwealth summit and has been accused of intimidating journalists and restricting freedom of speech.

“It is rather difficult for the United Kingdom to lecture Sri Lanka and others about their press freedom record when its own actions result in such widespread international condemnation,” said Vincent Peyrègne, chief executive of the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

The association announced on Nov. 8 that it will send a top-level press freedom mission to UK in January in response to the British government actions. An international delegation with publishers and editors from five continents will examine concerns about the government's condemnation of the Guardian's reporting.

The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers has never before sent a press freedom mission to the UK. The organization, which represents more than 18,000 publications in more than 120 countries, has previously conducted press freedom missions to countries such as Ethiopia, South Africa, Libya, Mexico, Ukraine and Myanmar.

By Julia Lugon.

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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