Two press freedom groups have written to the Prime Minister calling for the urgent repeal of legislation that would make newspapers pay all court costs, win or lose, unless signed up with a recognised regulator.
Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which includes the cost penalties provisions, has passed into law but has yet to be enacted.
At present the only regulator recognised by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP) is Impress, which has signed up fewer than 100 publications – most of them hyperlocal news websites and accompanying print editions.
The vast majority of the UK press has joined the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which has made clear that it has no intention of seeking recognition by the PRP.
They see regulation by a body recognised by the PRP as being part of state-imposed regulation and a serious threat to press freedom.
The fresh call for repeal of the costs provisions came in a joint letter to Theresa May from press freedom groups Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) and English PEN, the News Media Association (NMA) has reported.
The NMA report said the two organisations had sent a joint letter to May, citing the Conservative Party manifesto pledge to to repeal the legislation.
Publishers and media bodies believe the section 40 provisions pose a dangerous threat to free speech.
Antonia Byatt, interim director, English PEN, and Rebecca Vincent, UK bureau director, Reporters Without Borders, said in the letter: “Section 40 would introduce an unprecedented chilling effect for publishers and journalists in the UK, leading to self-censorship and a reduction in public interest reporting.
“The essential role of the press in our democracy would therefore be undermined, as well as the scope for any writer to investigate matters of concern and national interest for the public.
“We note that the continued presence of Section 40 is one of many current threats to press freedom in the UK.”
It added: “It is part of a worrying trend that resulted in the UK dropping to 40th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index, published in April 2017, and there has been further deterioration since then.
“We urge you to take immediate action to fulfil the Conservative Party’s pledge to repeal Section 40, and to ensure a timely response to the more than 140,000 stakeholders who engaged in good faith in the consultation of last year.
“Eliminating the threat posed by Section 40 would be a step in the right direction towards improving the UK’s worrying press freedom record.”
Picture: Reuters/Peter Nicholls