In 2019, the UK co-hosted the inaugural Global Conference for Media Freedom and co-founded the Media Freedom Coalition, which were significant steps in the global promotion of media freedom. However a number of domestic concerns undermined the UK’s international leadership role and resulted in the decline in ranking in the 2020 Index.
The murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry, Northern Ireland, on 18 April 2019 marked a staggering low point for press freedom in the UK, where a journalist had not been killed in the line of duty since the assassination of Martin O’Hagan in September 2001. Journalists who cover organised crime and paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland continued to face serious threats to their safety.
Although the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced in July it would establish a National Committee for the Safety of Journalists and a National Action Plan on Safety of Journalists, no apparent progress was made towards launching these initiatives.
The sentencing of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to a disproportionate jail term of 50 weeks for breaking bail also marred the UK’s press freedom record in 2019, as did the Home Office’s decision to green light the US extradition request. Assange remained in custody at the high security Belmarsh Prison despite widespread international concern for his health and safety, including by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
“With coronavirus and other converging crises presenting unprecedented threats to press freedom globally, it is more important than ever for democratic states to lead by example. The UK should be performing better on the World Press Freedom Index, and must address these domestic concerns as a matter of priority. Concrete steps should be taken to ensure the safety of journalists in the wake of Lyra McKee’s murder, and Julian Assange should be released - and certainly not extradited to the US”, said RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.
RSF also noted concern over problematic provisions of counter-terrorism and crime legislation adopted in 2019, as well as the pursuit by the London Metropolitan Police of the publication of leaked information from diplomatic cables as a criminal matter.
Notes to editors:
- Before its decline to 35th in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, the UK had risen seven places in the 2019 Index, bringing it to 33rd after spending the previous two years ranked at 40th.
- For more information on the press freedom situation in Northern Ireland, read RSF’s report following a research mission in March 2020.
- For more information on the press freedom implications of the case against Julian Assange, read RSF’s analysis after monitoring the first week of his US extradition hearing at the Woolwich Crown Court in February 2020.
- UK press contact: Rebecca Vincent at [email protected].