UK re-elected to UN Human Rights Council despite worrying moves against press freedom at home

Press freedom in the UK is under threat as the Snoopers' Charter undergoes its third and final reading at the House of Lords today, 31 October.

Rebecca Vincent
31 October 2016

Theresa May. PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Unfortunately, the UK was far from the only HRC candidate with on-going press freedom violations on the ground – and was by no means the worst offender.

On 28 October, the United Kingdom was re-elected as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), alongside 13 other countries. Although the UK’s bid was almost certain to be successful – given there were only two candidates for the two seats from the ‘Western European and other States’ category, the other being the United States – the election took place in the midst of a worrying trend of moves by the UK authorities against press freedom at home.

Unfortunately, the UK was far from the only HRC candidate with on-going press freedom violations on the ground – and was by no means the worst offender. Although Russia’s bid for membership was not successful, due largely to human rights concerns, other candidates with problematic rights records did get through. Iraq, Egypt, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and China – all successful on 28 October – rank in the bottom quarter of RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, and a number of their leaders are considered ‘Predators of the Press’. Indeed, the blatant disregard by some HRC members of their commitments to press freedom and other human rights with little done to hold them accountable undermines the very point and purpose of the body, and should be addressed.

For its part, the UK set out its candidate priorities for the 2017-2019 seat, pledging to “strengthen the role of human rights work in the UN’s work”, to “translate the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development into action that leaves no one behind”, to “stand up for freedom of religion or belief”, to “work to end violence against women and girls and to promote women’s full participation and leadership in political and economic life”, and to “work to promote open societies and challenge threats to civil society”, including the document’s only mention of press freedom: “we will encourage all governments to create a safe and enabling environment for civil society, which promotes free media and protects journalists from harm”.

Meanwhile, on the ground in the UK, in recent weeks authorities have carried out a number of worrying actions against press freedom. Parliament has moved rapidly into the final stages of consideration of the menacing 'Snoopers’ Charter'; discussion has been renewed on a cost-shifting policy that could impose all court costs on publishers who do not sign up to a state-approved regulator under Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013; and the UK border authorities seized the passport of an award-winning Syrian journalist after the Assad regime falsely flagged the document as stolen. None of this bodes well for the UK’s ranking in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, where it currently lags behind other democracies with a disappointing ranking of thirty-eighth out of 180 countries.

The Snoopers’ Charter

Perhaps the most serious current threat to press freedom in the UK is the menacing Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill) – also known as the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, which is in its final stages of consideration at parliament. The bill was drafted by UK prime minister Theresa May when she was home secretary, and submitted to parliament last November.

The IP Bill would grant the UK authorities vast powers to intercept, gather, and store the communications data of tens of millions of people.

The IP Bill would grant the UK authorities vast powers to intercept, gather, and store the communications data of tens of millions of people, including whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources. RSF has described the bill as a possible “death sentence” for investigative journalism, which depends directly on the safety, and often on the anonymity, of sources.

On 7 June, the bill passed the House of Commons with a staggering vote of 444 in favour and only 69 against. Controversially, Labour members were whipped to abstain rather than vote against the bill – a position that the party has reportedly retained in instructing its peers to abstain on the vote in the House of Lords. The bill recently completed the report stage at the House of Lords, which adopted a series of extensive amendments, but failed to address many concerns raised by civil society, and the bill remains threatening to press freedom.

In particular, the IP Bill does not sufficiently protect journalists, and contains provisions that threaten journalists’ ability to protect the confidentiality of their sources. This is made even more serious as the bill fails to require authorities to systematically give prior notice to journalists when they plan to obtain their communications data or hack into their devices. Further, amendments adopted by the House of Lords made the bill even more damaging for press freedom, now containing a provision aimed at forcing the government to implement Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 – elaborated on below.

The IP Bill will undergo its third and final reading at the House of Lords on 31 October, and if adopted, would be sent back to the House of Commons, which would decide whether to accept the amended version. It would then become law after receiving Royal Assent.

Threat of Section 40

In parallel to the progression of the IP Bill through the House of Lords, another debate has been renewed that could have seriously damaging implications for press freedom, concerning possible implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Section 40 contains a cost-shifting provision, stipulating that publishers that are not members of a state-approved regulator would be liable for the costs of all claims made against them, regardless of merit.

Observers have speculated that the Press Recognition Panel’s decision on 25 October to recognise Impress as a state-approved regulator could trigger implementation of Section 40, which would have serious financial implications for publishers who decline to sign up to the regulator – currently including many major newspapers, which have created their own regulator, and groups like Index on Censorship, which has spoken out against the move. The introduction of Section 40-style amendments to the IP Bill at the House of Lords, as mentioned above, has served to further heighten tensions.

Seizure of journalist’s passport

Apart from this problematic legislation, the UK authorities took another worrying step in recent weeks. On 22 September, Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim was detained and questioned upon arrival at London Heathrow airport. UK border authorities said her passport had been reported as stolen by Syria’s Assad regime, and confiscated the document.

Erhaim is the Syria project coordinator for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and has received numerous international awards for her courageous work training citizen journalists in Aleppo – including the Reporters Without Borders Prize in 2015. She has worked on projects funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and is a Chevening Scholar, having studied at City University London.

Erhaim was able to keep her old passport – which remained valid, but was completely full – and entered the UK, showing that the authorities indeed knew who she was, and calling into question how one could steal their own passport. She has been left at serious risk when she attempts to travel on further with her infant daughter. Despite extensive efforts from RSF and other NGOs over a matter of weeks, the UK Home Office has failed to return Erhaim’s passport, offer her other forms of support, or otherwise remedy the situation.

Parliament has taken a stronger position, with several MPs asking the government oral or written questions on Erhaim’s case. Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael tabled a cross-party Early Day Motion on Syrian passports, calling on the home secretary “to review the procedures so that no foreign governments can abuse the passport system to silence their critics or journalists upholding the right to freedom of expression”. At the time of publication, the motion had 33 signatures.

The blatant disregard by some HRC members of their commitments to press freedom and other human rights... undermines the very point and purpose of the body.

‘Do as I say, not as I do’

Freshly elected, rather than making HRC membership an exercise in ‘do as I say, not as I do’, the UK and other member states should take the opportunity to ensure their own actions are in line with their commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other UN human rights treaties. In the UK, stopping the menacing IP Bill from becoming law, preventing implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, and ensuring that repressive regimes are not able to manipulate British law to target critical foreign journalists in the UK, would be an excellent start.

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