The UK government’s polling day message about ‘freedom’ backfired spectacularly

Theresa May
Tracy Keeling

England’s local elections coincided with World Press Freedom Day on 3 May. So the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) sent out a message to people asserting its ‘commitment to media freedom’.

Given the UK government’s record on the matter, however, the FCO’s message constituted an own goal. Because it allowed commentators to point out exactly how the government is damaging press freedom – just as people were heading to the polls.

Freedom?

To celebrate World Press Freedom Day, the FCO posted the following message on Twitter:

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The UK is committed to media freedom and the protection of journalists around the world

It also created a video which detailed some of the challenges to press freedom around the world:

The FCO highlighted a number of important issues in the video, such as the fact that many journalists were killed last year, and that many more journalists faced detention for doing their jobs.

But the FCO also made a number of criticisms that apply to UK government itself. And people were not shy to point this out.

“Journalists play a vital role in holding the powerful to account”

The FCO claims to believe in the “vital role” journalists have in holding power to account. But there is a huge discrepancy between the government’s words and actions on this in the case of Julian Assange.

The WikiLeaks founder took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012. At the time, Sweden was investigating a series of allegations against him of a sexual nature and had a European arrest warrant for him. Sweden dropped the investigation in May 2017. But the UK government still plans to arrest him for skipping bail when he entered the embassy in 2012.

Assange has long held that the UK has trapped him for political reasons. And the UN has accused the UK of arbitrarily detaining him.

Given the available evidence, it does appear that the UK might be punishing Assange for publishing documents the powerful would rather people didn’t see.

“People must be able to challenge their governments and make informed decisions”

The FCO also champions the idea that the empowerment of people, through arming them with knowledge, is a crucial function of journalists. But this idea didn’t appear to be in the government’s mind in 2013. Because following Edward Snowden’s revelations about surveillance by intelligence organisation GCHQ, officials marched into the Guardian‘s offices; and they demanded the outlet destroy the computers holding the Snowden files. So the government wasn’t so keen on journalists ’empowering’ people with the knowledge that it had been spying on them for years.

Meanwhile, the British security services detained Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow Airport. Snowden originally provided the leaks to Greenwald, and documentary-maker Laura Poitras. The police held Miranda for nine hours under terrorism powers. Police said they held him, in part, because the disclosure of such material “is made for the purpose of promoting a political or ideological cause”. Apparently, promoting a cause of this manner was a form of ‘terrorism‘.

“A free press is essential for any democracy”

As a whole, the video gives the impression that the UK is a beacon of media freedom in the world. But people also challenged this portrayal:

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released the latest figures for its World Press Freedom Index recently. And the UK holds the 40th position on it. As RSF’s UK bureau director Rebecca Vincent pointed out:

[This] puts us in the embarrassing position of having one of the worst records on press freedom in Western Europe.

RSF says the UK’s post-Snowden-revelations decision to double down on spying on its population through the Investigatory Powers Act contributed to its position. It also raised the Law Commission’s proposal to jail journalists as ‘spies’ for obtaining leaked information as an issue.

Glass houses

So although the FCO is right to call for governments to provide media freedom, it has a lot of work to do to make sure it’s encouraged in its own country too. And its disingenuous video allowed people to point that out, just as voters were heading to the polls.

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Featured image via RT UK – YouTube

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