On 10 and 11 July, the first Global Conference on Media Freedom took place in London. The event, organised by the UK government and the government of Canada, is the first of its kind and over 60 ministers attended as well as over 1,000 reporters and members of civil society. The conference is part of an international campaign to shine a global spotlight on media freedom and increase the cost to those that are attempting to restrict it.
What is the conference about
The first of its kind, the Global Conference on Media Freedom is organised by the British and Canadian government and takes place on 10 and 11 July in London.
Global leaders, representatives from the media industry, journalists, civil society and academia will gather to attend interactive panel discussions. The first day focused on defining the challenges, the second on framing solutions. Commonwealth Foreign Ministers will also meet to discuss media freedom.
The conference is structured around four themes: protection and prosecution, including impunity; national frameworks and legislation; building trust in media and countering disinformation media sustainability.
Why media freedom matters
A free and independent media plays a vital role in protecting human rights and holding the powerful to account. Media freedom is the lifeblood of democracy and can be the foundation for economic prosperity and social development. It means that society can be free, fair and open. Journalistic scrutiny is an essential part of a vibrant and healthy democracy.
The world is becoming a more hostile place for journalists. Reporters Without Borders called 2018 the deadliest year on record for journalists. UNESCO confirms that at least 99 journalists were killed, a further 348 imprisoned and 60 held hostage. Freedom of expression is being
stifled and barriers are preventing the functioning of an independent media.
At the opening session of the Global Conference for Media Freedom, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt explained why we must stand with those who seek to report the truth and bring the facts to light.
“Today we send a resounding message that media freedom is not a Western but a universal value. At its best, a free media both protects society from the abuse of power and helps release the full potential of a nation,” said the Foreign Secretary. £The strongest safeguard against the dark side of power is accountability and scrutiny – and few institutions fulfil that role more effectively than a free media.”
Hunt announced five steps the British government will take to defend media freedom, for instance they will join other governments to establish a new Global Media Defence Fund, to be administered by UNESCO, which will take forward the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists. The fund will help with legal advice for journalists and safety training for those venturing into conflict zones. Hunt said that Britain will provide £3 million to the Fund over the next 5 years – and invited others to contribute.
The UK government will also establish an international task force to help governments to deliver their commitments on media freedom, including by developing national action plans. Thirdly, the Foreign Office’s Special Envoy on media freedom, Amal Clooney, has convened a panel of legal experts to advise countries on how to strengthen the legal protection of journalists.
Fourthly, Canada and the UK will bring together a contact group of likeminded countries to lobby in unison when media freedom comes under attack. The aim is for this to be a rapid response mechanism, helping foreign ministers and ambassadors to react as one when abuses take place.
Finally, Hunt invited every country represented at the conference to sign the Global Pledge on media freedom, resolving that they will work together as a coalition to promote this cause and meet again next year.
Also at the opening session, Amal Clooney said that governments needed to exert proper diplomatic pressure on other countries that persecuted journalists and not just pay lip service to press freedom.
“Signing pledges and making speeches is not enough. States must ensure that when a journalist is attacked then that crime is investigated and held to account,” she said. “Last year when Jamal Khashoggi, Washington Post columnist, was tortured to death and dismembered by Saudi Arabian officials in Istanbul, world leaders responded with little more than a collective shrug.”
On the second day of the conference, it was announced that Lord Neuberger, the former President of the UK Supreme Court, will serve as Chair for the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom put together by Amal Clooney, who will serve as its Vice-Chair. Joining the panel will also human rights lawyer and the former Justice Minister of Canada Irwin Cotler.
Speaking at the opening session of the second day, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland announced that Canada will contribute ten million dollars annually to support and reinforcing electoral and democratic processes by combating disinformation. Canada will also contribute an initial one million to the Global Media Defence Fund the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced yesterday.
“Facts matter, truth matters, professionalism matters,” the Canadian Foreign Minister said.
On the same panel, Lord Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC, spoke of the importance to take the increasingly insidious threats to journalists seriously and mentioned the horrible situation journalists in Turkey face.
“To commit the act of journalism in today’s Turkey requires a thick skin and a good lawyer,” he said. “In a sea of disinformation and partisan reporting, we need to stand up for independence, impartiality, and reporting without fear or favour.”
The BBC Director-General also announced that for the first time, the BBC has included freedom of expression in its guidelines.
“Our values matter and we have to speak loudly about them,” Lord Tony Hall said.
Audrey Aouzlay, Director-General of UNESCO, applauded the UK’s and Canada’s effort to make media freedom a top priority.
“Truth is not a public good like any other… it requires expertise, sources, and time for verification. It requires professionals,” she said.
The British Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Wright announced that the UK will set up a National Committee for the Safety of Journalists. The Committee will be asked to devise a National Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and ensure that those who threaten journalists are held to account and the plan will examine current protections offered to journalists in the UK, and consider how to work together to build on existing strengths.
In a press release published on the conference final day, DCMS Secretary of State Jeremy Wright said: “With rising disinformation and threats against the media, the UK’s strong and independent press is a beacon of freedom that this Government is committed to supporting and preserving.”
“The Committee will champion journalists’ ability to safely carry out their important roles in society and to continue to hold the powerful to account. This is part of our broader commitment to ensuring the future sustainability of hiqh-quality, public interest news.”