UK must not undermine news media

August 17, 2011

The Rt. Hon. David Cameron
Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London SW1A 2AA
Great Britain

Dear Prime Minister Cameron:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is gravely concerned about the steps to curb recent riots in the United Kingdom that are under consideration by your government. These measures would set alarming precedents that hinder press freedom and the free flow of information.

During the August 10 House of Commons debate to address riots in the U.K., you stated that the British government would investigate new ways to stop and control communications on websites and social networks and, in response to a question, you declared that media organizations had a responsibility to hand over raw footage to the authorities.

CPJ, an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending the rights of journalists worldwide, urges you reconsider this position. As repressive states around the world, including China and Iran, take solace in your expressed intent to restrict communications, it is vital that you continue to uphold high standards of freedom.

There is no shortage of examples that demonstrate how repressive governments have seized on the riots as an opportunity to rebuke Britain. As soon as riots broke out, Iranian officials demanded that the U.K. government exercise “restraint” in dealing with rioters, offered to send a delegation to investigate human rights violations, and complained that the U.N. had been silent about the situation. In Russia, there have been comparisons between the riots and the protests in Libya. An opinion article in China’s official People’s Daily newspaper referred to the riots as a case in which the West is “tasting the bitter fruit” after championing Internet freedom. Syria has also accused your government of hypocrisy.

In light of such defiance of the U.K.’s moral authority on human rights, we urge you to clarify the intent behind your statement, spell out any planned actions you may take, and reaffirm your government’s commitment to protecting free expression. Failure to do so would gravely undermine global efforts to defend human rights and would provide authoritarian regimes with arguments they will use to justify censorship and surveillance.

Video footage demonstrates that journalists in Britain already face physical danger and intimidation when covering public disorder. As both the BBC and commercial television outlets have stated, the proposal that media companies hand over raw footage creates a further and immediate risk to journalists’ safety. To declare that journalists have a responsibility to effectively act as the eyes and ears of law enforcement profoundly compromises their status as independent observers.

New controls on online expression with the misguided aim of deterring social unrest further risk hampering the work of journalists. Social media and mobile services are vital tools in reporting current events and in providing the knowledge that citizens badly need in uncertain conditions. CPJ’s experience defending press freedom around the world indicates that censorship is an ineffective means to address social upheaval which can directly impact the flow of information.

For example, censorship of email and social networking sites was pervasive in Tunisia under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, as it has been in many repressive states. But in 2010, the Tunisian Internet Agency took the effort one step further, redirecting Tunisian users to fake, government-created login pages for Google, Yahoo, and Facebook. From these pages, authorities stole usernames and passwords. When Tunisian online journalists began filing reports on the uprising, the state used their login data to delete the material.

You have indicated that you are including police and intelligence services in consultations about these potential restrictions, but we ask that you also include journalists, news organizations, press freedom advocates, and Internet users, whose work could be affected either by their sources of information being limited or by them being subjected to censorship themselves.

We believe additional laws are unnecessary. There are already laws on the books that criminalize incitement to violence, including expressions online. The police also have at their disposal a clearly delineated process for obtaining evidence from media organizations in response to a judge’s order. In the wake of this deplorable wave of violence, your administration should target those who are alleged to have engaged in criminal activity and stand firm in your protection of accepted principles of freedom of expression, due process, and editorial independence.

Your government should also take into account that any new measures to control social media or the Internet may be in violation of Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, to which the U.K. is party and which strictly defines the scope of any restriction to freedom of expression.

We urge you to consider these issues as a matter of urgency. The U.K. should distance itself from responses taken in repressive countries to social unrest and instead, at this moment, reaffirm its historical commitment to freedom of expression and of the press. Such a commitment would inspire those who fight for democracy around the world while undermining the arguments of authoritarian rulers who seek to squelch freedom of expression in moments of crisis.


Joel Simon
Executive Director