Policy and Public Affairs Officer Sophie Malleson on the importance of press freedoms.
This week I attended “The Big Noise: How macho leaders hide their weakness by stifling dissent, debate & democracy”, hosted by Index on Censorship, a non-profit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide.
It was held at Google HQ and panellists and audience members were international; some from countries where the relationship between the state and the media looks quite different to that which exists in the UK. Speakers included Xiaolu Guo, a Chinese novelist, essayist, screenwriter, film-maker; Dora Papp, a Hungarian activist; Safa Al Ahmed, award-winning Saudi Arabian journalist; and Rob Sears, author of humour titles "The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump" and "Vladimir Putin: Life Coach".
The event’s focus was on “macho” leaders across the world, including leaders who attempt to discredit legitimate journalism. At worst, some speakers said, trumped-up criminal charges can be used to imprison voices, including journalists, which may challenge, ridicule, criticise or satirise.
Listening to the ways in which legitimate free speech and journalism could be targeted led me be thankful for freedoms that exists in the UK for journalists to scrutinise those in power. Whether through news journalism, satirical cartoons or published novels, UK-based writers would not expect to face threats of a prison sentence after penning a column which made fun of the Prime Minister.
Not all journalists worldwide enjoy this freedom. Indeed, last years’ Defend Media Freedom conference, co-hosted by the British and Canadian Governments, set out some of the challenges facing media freedoms as well as the opportunities to create safer environments for journalists.
Of course, journalists’ cannot just publish whatever they want. The majority of the UK’s newspapers and magazines, and their online versions, have agreed, through legally enforceable contract, to be regulated by IPSO. This means they must follow the rules laid out in the Editors’ Code of Practice, and be accountable to an external, independent regulator.
The Editors’ Code is specifically drafted with the aim of protecting the rights of individuals from press abuse, but without stifling legitimate reporting and freedom of speech. It makes clear that newspapers and magazines have the freedom to scrutinise, criticise and even poke fun at and offend. But it also offers protections to individuals in terms of privacy, harassment and discrimination amongst other things and requires that reporting be accurate.
The Index on Censorship event inspired thought-provoking discussion around the way free speech can be threatened. Some of the stories from the panellists demonstrated the challenges that journalists face across the world, and we should all be alert to any moves that would limit journalists’ ability to carry out their work.