An international group of press freedom organisations has urged David Cameron to scrap the Royal Charter-backed system of press regulation and lay off The Guardian.
The letter has been sent to Cameron in the wake of an unprecedented press freedom mission to the UK organised by the World Association of Newspapers last month. And it has been informed by meetings held with UK groups including: English PEN, Index on Censorship and Hacked Off.
The Global Co-ordinating Committee of Press Freedom Organisations drafted its letter to Cameron after meeting in London last month.
The letter says: “As groups fighting for press freedom and freedom of expression around the world, we are deeply concerned that actions taken by your government will embolden autocratic leaders to restrict the media under the guise of protecting national security or improving media performance. In fact, this is already occurring.”
They have also expressed concern about the pressure brought to bear by the UK Government on The Guardian in the wake of its revelations about US and UK state surveillance based on leaks from Edward Snowden.
"A key area of focus for the WAN-IFRA delegation is the government pressure that has been applied to the Guardian newspaper and its editor, Alan Rusbridger. The pressure began in May 2013 after the Guardian began publishing a series of stories based on documents leaked to them by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. These documents, some of which the Guardian shared with US media organisations including The New York Times and ProPublica, revealed the existence of a massive government surveillance effort carried out by the NSA and Government Communications Headquarters.
"These stories sparked a broad public debate around the world about the appropriate limits of government surveillance in the electronic age. That debate reverberated throughout the capitals of Latin America and Europe; led to the introduction of resolutions at the United Nations; and sparked a broad policy review in the United States that is playing out both in the courts and the political arena."
The letter highlights the detention in August 2013 of the partner of former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, David Miranda, at Heathrow airport while he was transporting some of the Snowden material and the questioning of Rusbridger by MPs in December 2013.
The letter states about Rusbridger's parliamentary grilling: "In the course of those proceedings, Rusbridger’s patriotism was called into question. Speaking before Parliament, you claimed, without evidence, that the Guardian’s actions had damaged British national security and urged Parliament to carry out an investigation.”
It adds: “We view these actions and the consistent government pressure on the Guardian as incompatible with the British tradition of press freedom, and deeply damaging to the country’s international prestige. If there is evidence that the Guardian has broken the law—and we would like to stress that we have seen absolutely nothing to suggest that this is the case—then the competent judicial authorities should carry out an independent criminal investigation free of government interference. Your comments, and those of some members of Parliament, have at a minimum undermined the perception of impartiality by suggesting that the process is being driven by political rather than legal concerns.
'We note that the unprecedented pressure on the Guardian comes at a time when the British public is engaged in a fierce debate over media regulation. We believe the issues are linked, as together they create the impression that British authorities are seeking to constrain and control the work of the media. In fact, the debate over media regulation was sparked by the Guardian’s and other newspapers’ reporting on criminal phone-hacking and other abuses committed by some members of the media over the course of many years. In response to these revelations, you announced that a commission led by Sir Brian Leveson would carry out a systematic inquiry into media practice and propose steps to curb abuses.
"The revelations also sparked the mobilisation of hacking victims, led by Hacked Off."
The letter condemns the laws passed by Parliament which mean that publishers which aren’t part of a regulator approved by the Royal Charter-backed recognition body could be subject to punitive damages in libel and privacy cases.
"This Parliamentary action, in our view, establishes statutory underpinning for media regulation. This means that the Rubicon has, in fact, been crossed. After listening to all sides of the debate, we recognise the gravity of the problem of media abuse that the Royal Charter seeks to address.
"We also recognise that the Leveson inquiry took a deliberate and thoughtful approach to a complex issue. But the deliberative nature of the process does not mean that the best outcome has been recommended. It is our view that the Parliamentary action that essentially compels participation in the regulatory mechanism belies claims that it will be 'voluntary'.
"Indeed, it should be a source of serious concern to your government that autocratic leaders seeking to limit media freedom now cite the British example. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who has championed one of the most repressive media laws in all of Latin America, has explicitly invoked the British example in defending his actions. In an August 2013 speech…
"The WAN-IFRA mission heard from Lord Anthony Lester of Herne Hill that government representatives from South Africa to Malaysia had asked how the British approach to media regulation could be adapted to their circumstances. Zafar Abbas, the editor of Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and a member of the WAN-IFRA delegation, described to us how Pakistani officials now routinely cite actions of the British government in pressing the Pakistani media to “self regulate” or face government action.
The groups urged Cameron to: “Distance yourself from the Parliamentary investigation into the Guardian and refrain from any public comments about the criminal investigation, to avoid the perception of political pressure."
They said Cameron should urge Parliament to repeal the amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill which means publishers who aren't part of a Royal Charter backed press regulator could face punitive damages in legal actions.
The letter also calls on Cameron to: "Distance yourself from the Parliamentary investigation into the Guardian and refrain from any public comments about the criminal investigation, to avoid the perception of political pressure."
The signatories to the letter are:
- Joel Simon, executive director, Committee to Protect Journalists
- Elizabeth Ballantine, president of the Inter American Press Association
- Alexandre K. Jobim, president of the International Association of Broadcasting
- Alison Bethel McKenzie, executive director of the International Press Institute
- Vincent Peyrègne, chief executive officer of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
- Ronald Koven, European representative and acting director of the World Press Freedom Committee
- Chris Llewellyn, president & CEO of FIPP (Worldwide Magazine Media Association)