Freedom of the press in an age of anxiety
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Freedom of the press in an age of anxiety

Amal Clooney attends side event Press behind bars during 73rd UNGA session at United Nations Headquarters. Photo: Lev Radin/Shutterstock

The UK Foreign Secretary has appointed international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney to act as a special envoy on media freedom. She will also chair a high-level panel of legal experts on the issue.

Clooney has made it known that she will be gathering new legal initiatives to help ensure a more effective international response to attacks on media freedoms.

2018 was a deadly year for journalists, with 99 killed, 348 detained and 80 taken hostage by non-state groups. Attacks in 2018 spread to Europe, including Malta and Eastern Europe.

And according to a report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists killed worldwide in retaliation for their work nearly doubled in 2018 with 34 deaths compared to 18 in the previous year.

Clooney may wish to review the UK’s Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, which campaigners for freedom of expression and the press have been warning contains provisions that can threaten the protection of journalistic sources.

The Act makes expressing “an opinion or belief that is supportive of a proscribed organisation and in doing so is reckless as to whether a person to whom the expression is directed will be encouraged to support a proscribed organisation” a terrorist offence.

Critics have pointed out that the terms “supportive”, “reckless” and “encouraged” are undefined. Such vague terms and overbroad provisions lead to arbitrariness and discrimination placing human rights defenders and investigative journalists at the whim of judicial interpretation.

In addition, the new Act accepts that working as a journalist or carrying out academic research is an acceptable excuse for accessing material online that could be useful for terrorism.

However, the relevant clause is still problematic. For example, if someone watches a terrorist video online because they want to understand why people might be drawn to terrorism, they still run the risk of a long prison sentence.

Article 1 of the European Charter on Freedom of the Press notes, “Freedom of the press is essential to a democratic society. To uphold and protect it, and to respect its diversity and its political, social and cultural missions, is the mandate of all governments.” Article 3 says, “The right of journalists and media to gather and disseminate information and opinions must not be threatened, restricted or made subject to punishment.”

Let’s hope that, despite the turmoil around Brexit, the UK government continues to recognize these fundamental principles.

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