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Boris Johnson and his government are attacking press freedom. We must not let them win

One journalist has been arrested. A minister has attacked another on Twitter. These are not isolated incidents – and they must not stand.

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
2 February 2021, 10.47am
A watchdog has warned that press freedom is being eroded under Johnson's government
Geoff Pugh/Daily Telegraph/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved

“As a former journalist I am alarmed that worldwide attacks on journalists are rife and increasing,” said Boris Johnson as UK foreign minister, back in 2017.

“Where governments fear freedom of expression they often try to shut down media and civil society, or clip their wings.”

At the time, Johnson was unveiling a £1m fund to boost press freedom around the world. Four years later, as prime minister, his own government’s record on the issue is appalling.

Not only do Johnson’s ministers seem to think nothing of making false and provocative claims about journalists – exhibit one: Treasury and Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch’s baseless attacks against a Huffpo journalist for merely asking questions, sparking a torrent of online abuse.

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Britain’s security services, too, seem to have an increasing problem with reporters doing their jobs. Over the weekend, a journalist was arrested after photographing activists protesting outside a controversial military camp housing hundreds of asylum seekers in Kent. A Home Office spokesperson refused to comment directly on the case, but mentioned “vandalism” and “breaking lockdown restrictions”. (Working as a journalist during lockdown is protected under law.)

We’ve experienced a growing hostility towards journalists first hand. Last year openDemocracy's political correspondent was told he was not permitted to ask questions at the daily COVID press briefings.

These incidents are part of a long-growing climate of hostility to journalism here in the UK, emanating right from the top of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street.

We’ve experienced it first hand at openDemocracy. Last year our political correspondent, James Cusick, who has held a parliamentary lobby pass for decades, was told he was not permitted to ask questions at the daily COVID press briefings.

Cusick’s previous reporting for openDemocracy had exposed serious flaws in the COVID-19 testing regime. It had voiced concerns among doctors for the safety of critically ill children; and revealed hospital logs which support their fears. And it had highlighted the costly negligence battles the government is preparing to fight over NHS worker deaths.

The reason given for the refusal to permit him a question, even after senior colleagues at other outlets had pleaded his case? According to Johnson’s Downing Street: openDemocracy is not an award-winning news outlet, but a “campaigning” organisation.

It’s a political smear that Johnson’s Downing Street has deployed again and again. Why did No. 10 refuse to answer questions from The Guardian and the Mirror about his chief adviser Dominic Cumming’s infamous lockdown breach for many weeks? Well, these award-winning newspapers were “campaigning” outfits, too, apparently.

And it speaks to a wider culture of evasion that has flourished during the pandemic. As my openDemocracy colleagues have shown, COVID-19 has been used as a pretext to ignore or indefinitely delay responses to Freedom of Information requests – undermining an already-creaking system that is supposed to give journalists and citizens the tools to hold their leaders to account.

It has also provided an excuse to rush through controversial data deals with Big Tech: trading away the sensitive personal health information of millions of citizens to private spy tech firms, including one founded by a Trump-backing billionaire.

And, as a recent, damning report from the National Audit Office laid bare, it has opened the floodgate to ‘COVID cronyism’. Firms run by Tory donors or allies or other politically connected figures have been awarded massive contracts to deliver COVID services, from PR advice to PPE to the ‘failing’ Test and Trace system. (The last of which, in the words of the government’s own scientific advisers, had a ‘negligible’ effect on stopping the spread of the virus.)

Press freedom watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF) has called out Johnson’s government for its “vindictive” response to media criticism of its handling of the pandemic. (The UK currently has the highest COVID death rate in the world.) RSF has warned that press freedom in the UK is being eroded.

Press freedom watchdog Reporters without Borders has called out Johnson’s government for its “vindictive” response to media criticism of its handling of the pandemic. It warned that press freedom in the UK is being eroded.

Of course, there are plenty of countries where the situation for journalists is far worse. There has rightly been an uproar about the silencing of the media in India – as well the recent, shameless complicity of Twitter (subsequently reversed) in this sinister and sustained campaign. In the Philippines, journalist Maria Ressa is facing a litany of charges trumped up by the brutal regime of Rodrigo Duterte. From Mexico to Pakistan, misogynistic threats and harassment against women journalists have spilled over into physical violence, too. Meanwhile in Russia, the authorities are using the Navalny protests as a pretext to target journalists, as part of their wider crackdown.

We must show solidarity with the countless reporters globally who are facing these imminent threats. And we must not hesitate to hold those who are responsible, or complicit, accountable.

But we must also not forget how authoritarianism takes root, and grows. That’s why we need to fight these battles today here in Britain: to defend our right to access information, to ask questions and to call out our elected leaders when they fail us.

Back in 2017, Johnson spoke of threats to press freedom as an issue affecting poor, benighted “other” places (such as the United Kingdom’s great ally, the Kingdom of Bahrain). Committing only £1m to tackle such a massive, global challenge was always, to use an infamous Johnson phrase, “chicken feed”.

“Freedom of expression is a universal human right and a free press underpins that right,” Johnson said at the time. “A free media is vital to creating a vibrant, informed and engaged population and helps to support a safer, more prosperous and progressive world.”

Like so many of the words the prime minister utters, these were empty platitudes. But we must hold him to them, nonetheless.

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