How can Britain have fallen to 40th place in the latest World Press Freedom Index?

How can Britain have fallen to 40th place in the latest World Press Freedom Index, which is compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (aka Reporters Sans Frontières)?

The 2017 rankings, which are headed by Norway, Sweden and Finland, reveal that the UK’s press is less free than that of Estonia, Chile, Ghana and South Africa. Why?

According to RWB’s detailed statement on the UK, it has slipped down the index because of “a heavy-handed approach towards the press, often in the name of national security.”

It cites the Investigatory Powers Act, the Law Commission's proposal for a new Espionage Act (which I wrote about on this blog two weeks ago) plus the looming threat that Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 will be implemented.

The statement adds: “The seizure by UK border authorities of a Syrian journalist's passport at the request of the Assad regime sent the worrying signal that critical foreign journalists travelling to the UK could be targeted by their own governments.”

Read that paragraph again and wonder. Is it not the most astonishing indictment of this government that it should have acted at the request of Bashar al-Assad, dictator of Syria, butcher of his own people and deployer of chemical weapons?

You may well ask whether it can really be true. But I’m afraid it is. In September last year, Zaina Erhaim arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport from her base in Turkey and was questioned by border agency officials who confiscated her passport.

They explained that the passport had been reported stolen by the Syrian authorities and they were therefore compelled to retain it and return it to Damascus. This high-handed and misguided action prompted immediate protests.

It appeared that the Home Office knew nothing of Erhaim. Officials were unaware that she was the recipient of press freedom awards earned for her media work inside Syria, where she was born and raised, at risk to her life and liberty.

As a co-ordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Syria, she was awarded the 2016 Index on Censorship freedom of expression award for journalism. The year before, she also won an award in the USA for “speaking truth to power.”

In 2013, she had dared to enter northern Syria, initially to document the life of “ordinary people” who were existing in cities amid bombed ruins and facing persistent shelling. I was, she said of her mission, “lending my eyes to the world so that it sees what I see.”

Erhaim soon realised that she could do much more by training the people of Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to report on the war. Some of them went on to work for international media outlets by providing videos, photographs and written reportage.

Those brave citizen journalists were able to show a Syrian landscape where, despite the bombardment and persistent threat of death, to quote Erhaim, “people love, get married, have friends, have children”. As for Erhaim, she made a superb documentary of her own, Syria’s Rebellious Women.

By any standards, this was work that merits high praise. Erhaim, a graduate first of Damascus University and then, in 2011, London’s City University, is surely a journalistic hero. Her rights were violated by the UK border agency.

Last October, after I had challenged the Home Office about the seizure of her passport, a spokeswoman said it would not, after all, return it to Syria. She stressed that there had been no direct link with the Assad regime. It transpired that the request for it to be confiscated had come through Interpol and, because passports are the legal property of the government that issues them, Britain felt it must comply with the Syrian request.

I asked at the time whether the Home Office would have complied with such a request from Hitler’s regime or from the Soviet government during the cold war (or, come to think of it, the current Russian government). Answer came there none.

What beggars belief is that the Home Office, which now knows all about Erhaim’s courage and extraordinary commitment to truth-telling, is still holding on to her passport seven months after expropriating it.  On what grounds?

I asked that question of the Home Office on Thursday morning this week. After four hours, a press officer issued what can only be called a wholly unsatisfactory answer.

He refused to say why the passport was being retained. He refused to say whether or not the Home Office had taken steps to verify the claim by the Syrian authorities that her passport had been stolen.

He did say she was free to travel to and from the UK on a current visa. But the absence of her passport restricts Erhaim from travelling to other countries.

So here’s the situation: the British government is holding on to a passport that denies a woman the freedom to pursue her journalistic trade because of a complaint by a country that is now ranked 177th (out of 180) on the World Press Freedom Index.

That response makes it abundantly clear why Britain has been ranked in 40th place on that same index. It seems that our government believes in the theory of freedom of expression but not in its practice.

Full disclosure: I am a board member of Reporters Without Borders’ UK bureau.

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*