UK election: RSF calls on all political parties to commit to 10 priority steps to enhance press freedom

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With less than a month to go until the UK general election, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is calling on all political parties to demonstrate a commitment to press freedom through concrete action, starting with 10 priority areas critical if media are to work freely and without fear. 

The United Kingdom currently sits at just 23rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s annual World Press Freedom Index. While the situation for press is rated ‘satisfactory’, there are areas of serious concern, including attacks on exiled journalists, insufficient legislative protection for investigative journalism, a high level of online abuse of the press, a polarised political climate, and economic pressures on the industry. 

Ahead of a general election scheduled for 4 July, RSF is outlining 10 priority areas for the incoming government to ensure freedom of the press – and citizens’ right to information – is enhanced over the coming parliament, and recognised as fundamental to any democratic society. 

British politicians have long been good at talking about press freedom, but it is high time leaders backed those words with actions. We call on the next government to make press freedom a priority, taking swift action on laws to stop abusive legal actions, enhancing protections for journalists at risk of transnational attacks, holding tech companies to account, and using bold diplomacy to stand up for the rights of journalists worldwide. Without freedom of the press, there can be no functioning democracy: the next UK prime minister must unequivocally defend it and guarantee citizens’ right to information.

Fiona O'Brien
RSF UK Bureau Director

RSF has identified 10 priority areas for immediate action:

  • Action on SLAPPs 

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), an abuse of law used to silence journalists, are a serious and growing threat to the ability of journalists to hold the rich and powerful to account. The UK badly needs robust legislation to protect journalists from SLAPPs, as well as a raft of non-legislative measures. Some progress was made in the previous parliament, but a stand-alone law failed to make it through the parliamentary process in time. The incoming government should prioritise the passage of anti-SLAPP legislation, in consultation with industry and taking stock of lessons learned, as well as building on progress made by the Anti-SLAPP Taskforce on complementary non-legislative action. 

  • Transnational attacks on journalists

There has been an alarming rise in the number of transnational attacks on journalists working in the UK, most notably on Iranian journalists based in London, one of whom was stabbed in broad daylight earlier this year. These threats not only stop journalists from working, but also represent an attack on the UK’s sovereignty and democracy. The incoming government should prioritise recommendations included in RSF’s recent report, Watch Out Because We’re Coming For You, which outlines practical steps for government, law enforcement agencies and social media platforms to better protect all journalists working in the UK. 

  • Online abuse of journalists 

Online violence against journalists – particularly women journalists – has risen alarmingly in recent years and is having a devastating psychological and professional impact: research shows that significant numbers of women consider leaving journalism altogether. Government can and needs to do more to ensure victims are supported and perpetrators brought to account, including working with police to ensure better recording and handling of online crimes; holding social media platforms accountable for dealing with online violence against journalists; and improving data collection to better understand the links between online and offline abuse, and its impact on press freedom.

  • British journalists detained or killed abroad 

Despite seeking to position itself as a champion of press freedom, the UK has a poor record in standing up for its own citizens arbitrarily detained or sentenced overseas, or killed in connection with their journalism. British nationals such as Jimmy Lai, on trial for publishing a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, Alaa Abdel Fattah, a blogger and political prisoner in Egypt, and Clare Rewcastle Brown, an investigative journalist sentenced in absentia to two years in prison in Malaysia, deserve the full and vocal support of their government – as does the family of Christopher Allen, a dual UK/US national whose family is still seeking justice nearly seven years after he was killed in South Sudan. Britain has gained a reputation internationally for failing its citizens targeted overseas, something the incoming government must work swiftly to reverse. 

  • Emergency visas for journalists in danger 

In 2020, the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom recommended that member states of the Media Freedom Coalition (MFC) introduce an emergency visa for journalists, noting that doing so would have an “enormous impact in strengthening media freedom worldwide”. The same year, the UK’s own Foreign Affairs Committee urged the government to consider “a particular class of visa for journalists, and their associates or families, threatened with violence” and recommended better coordination between the Home Office and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) over visas for persecuted journalists. 

Yet the UK – despite being a founding member of the MFC – has done nothing to implement such a scheme, sitting by as other member states such as Canada, the Czech Republic and Germany stepped up. The new government has a duty to move quickly to put this right. Providing immediate safe refuge to small numbers of journalists would send a strong message to authoritarian regimes that the UK truly values press freedom and the defence of democracy, and help combat a chilling effect that attacks on journalists inevitably have.

  • Respect for journalists’ rights 

In recent years there have been alarming instances of security force overreach with regard to journalists. As well as arrests of journalists covering protests, RSF has documented cases of journalists being detained under counter-terrorism legislation as they re-enter the UK, with devices searched and a worrying lack of transparency. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal also recently revealed shocking allegations that police in Northern Ireland mounted surveillance and other operations in order to try to access journalists’ sources. The right of reporters to work freely and protect their sources is fundamental to public interest journalism: the new government must not only guarantee it, but also ensure any past security force misconduct is investigated and brought to light.

The incoming government must also commit to the principle – and practice – of free and fair access for journalists to democratic processes. Attempts to charge journalists to access political events, to charge them to access court, or to give preferential access to journalists from certain publications or countries are not compatible with a free and open press. 

  • International Diplomacy: Gaza and beyond

The UK must steadfastly call for press freedom to be upheld worldwide, recognising it as a pillar of free societies. This should extend to allies, as well as authoritarian regimes. The situation for journalists in Gaza will be the most urgent press freedom dossier awaiting the incoming government, which must act swiftly to ensure Israel stops killing Palestinian journalists and stifling independent reporting, and grants access to international reporters. RSF has filed three complaints with the International Criminal Court about Israeli war crimes against journalists; the UK must put pressure on Israel to reverse the culture of impunity that has permitted such crimes and endangered journalism globally. 

Right around the world – whether in conflict or non-conflict zones –  the new government should use its diplomatic weight to advocate for freedom of the press. It should also ensure the Media Freedom teams at the FCDO are sufficiently funded so that Britain can rebuild and maintain its leadership in the international media freedom space. 

  • Detention of Julian Assange 

The UK government should engage in urgent, highest-level diplomacy with the United States to seek a solution that prevents the extradition of Julian Assange, who has already spent more than five years in London’s Belmarsh Prison awaiting the outcome of judicial proceedings in UK courts. If transferred to the US, Assange would become the first publisher to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act and face a staggering 175 years in prison, which would set a dangerous and deeply worrying precedent for journalism worldwide. The UK government must therefore do all it can to secure Assange’s immediate release from prison, allowing him to return home to his family in the UK or have safe passage to another country of their choosing. 

  • The National Committee for the Safety of Journalists 

The National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, established in 2020, brings together government, journalists and organisations like RSF to work together to ensure journalists can conduct their crucial work free from threat or attack. It has the potential to be a highly valuable forum, but has been slow to implement the National Action Plan first published in 2021 due to uneven engagement of members, changes of personnel within government and a lack of resourcing. Successful models in other countries show that higher levels of funding, greater involvement of industry and bigger buy-in right across government are essential if real progress is to be made in protecting journalists. The new government should therefore ensure the Committee is properly resourced and fully empowered to effect positive change. 

  • Understanding the impact of AI on journalism

AI has the potential to revolutionise the global information landscape, but also presents a pressing structural challenge to the right to information. To prevent AI becoming a weapon of mass disinformation, RSF – whose groundbreaking Paris Charter, published with partner organisations in 2023, is the first global ethical benchmark for AI and journalism – is calling for comprehensive regulation which amplifies reliable news sources, prevents the dissemination of harmful deepfakes, and secures fair and transparent compensation for content usage. The incoming government must also work with international partners to establish global standards and regulations for AI systems in the information space, ensuring that media outlets and journalism support groups play an active role in international governance of AI systems.




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