Letters   |   UK

UK urged to reconsider post-Leveson media proposals

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

Via facsimile: (+44) 2079250918

April 2, 2013

Dear Prime Minister Cameron,

You recently spoke out in defense of press freedom in Africa by raising the case of an imprisoned Somali journalist when you met with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The journalist was subsequently released. The moral authority of a British prime minister to mount such a defense stems in part from Britain's history of nearly 300 years without government regulation of the press.

The deal your government has struck with the opposition, in the wake of the Leveson report, to introduce a royal charter establishing the details of press regulation could erode that authority.

Britain has been a beacon of press freedom globally, particularly in those Commonwealth countries that inherited the British parliamentary and legal models. Any attempt, no matter how well-intentioned, to embed press regulation in law has far-reaching implications for press freedom across much of the world.

It is the job of journalists to hold governments to account and thus ensure the full participation of citizens. A natural antagonism therefore exists between the press and those in power--but in some instances, governments seek to pass legislation to restrict the media and even criminalize investigative reporting. It would be highly regrettable if such leaders could point to the British parliament as precedent for introducing statutory media controls or regulations.

For example, the African National Congress has proposed statutory measures, including a media tribunal, to control a South African press it accuses of being incapable of managing "irresponsible" members through self-regulation. Any move by Britain toward legislation can only be a source of encouragement to South Africa's would-be media regulators and of deep concern to its independent journalists.

Journalists in other African countries, including Botswana, Tanzania, and Uganda, have voiced similar fears that Britain is sending the wrong signal to political leaders who would like nothing better than to rein in irksome reporters. Within the European Union, the leaders of Hungary, who have been roundly condemned for their repressive 2011 Media Act, would doubtless take heart from British lawmakers taking a first step down the path of media regulation.

At least one Russian lawmaker has already seized on the British example to propose the creation of a Russian media regulator. Aleksey Mitrofanov, head of the information policy, technology, and communications committee in parliament, told journalists last month that Russia should delegate a commission with powers to censure, fine, and even close down news outlets, bypassing the judicial system.

The proposals in Britain are nowhere near as draconian as this, but they send the wrong message. Many responsible journalists in Britain acknowledge the sins of Fleet Street, but most argue that these can be addressed through existing legislation. Use the criminal law to prosecute criminal behavior; make the civil law more accessible to the victims of unscrupulous newspapers; and do not try to impose standards of fairness and accuracy in newsrooms through statute.

The proposed arbitration mechanism has also been widely criticized. Those news organizations that opt out of the mechanism face the prospect of "exemplary damages," a concept that reminds us of Hungary's unpalatable media law in its potential to foster self-censorship and chill investigative journalism.

We understand that reform of libel laws in England and Wales is close to being enacted after years of parliamentary work and public campaigning. As you have rightly stressed, political maneuvering around the post-Leveson press regulation ought not to jeopardize a much needed Defamation Bill that would end Britain's invidious reputation as the libel tourism capital of the world.

Lord Justice Leveson acknowledges that self-regulation is the best option for a truly independent press. The so-called statutory underpinning that he proposes to enable self-regulation does not necessarily violate international standards on press freedom, but runs counter to bedrock principles of a democracy.

Prime Minister, we urge you to take a step back from the current proposals, which do not take into account the implications for press freedom beyond Fleet Street. Online journalists and bloggers and those outside the London-based, national newspaper establishment need to have their voices heard too. The haste with which this deal has been put together leaves too many unanswered questions.

Journalists, especially those working under authoritarian regimes, are watching and hoping that their colleagues in Britain can find a better solution than regulation anchored in law. Mr. Cameron, we think that in the interests of global press freedom, you should allow them the opportunity to do so.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director


CC List:

The Rt. Hon. Nick Clegg MP, Deputy Prime Minister

The Rt. Hon. Maria Miller MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister for Women and Equalities

The Rt. Hon. William Hague MP, First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The Rt. Hon. Hugo Swire MP, Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office

The Rt. Hon. Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Justice

The Rt. Hon. Edward Miliband MP 

The Rt. Hon. Harriet Harman QC MP 

The Rt. Hon. John Whittingdale MP

Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission (digital agenda)

Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission (Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship)

Nils Muižnieks,  Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media

Baroness Catherine Ashton, EU External Relations Commissioner

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