John Whittingdale is a former Culture Secretary, and is MP for Maldon. He is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Media Freedom.
In 2004, while reporting on Islamist terrorism for the BBC in Riyadh, security correspondent Frank Gardner was shot. Six times. Twice from a distance, and four times at point-blank range. His cameraman, Simon Cumbers, was killed by their attackers. Incredibly, Frank survived, partially paralysed.
Frank took the assignment to go to Saudi Arabia knowing there would be risks. He was, after all, reporting on a campaign of terror and murder being waged by Al-Qaeda against Western expatriates. He took that decision as a journalist. But also, as a husband. As a man with a family. In his extremely moving account of the attack and his story of reporting from the Islamic world – Blood and Sand, he captures the moments spent with his wife Amanda the night he leaves London to fly to Saudi Arabia. Reading of his career reporting from some of the world’s most dangerous environments, you get a glimmer of the sacrifices and risks journalists and their families endure.
Because in some places, the conventions of media freedom – those that we accept – do not register. In some places, journalists themselves become the target. In 2012, The Sunday Times foreign affairs correspondent Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik were targeted by the Syrian government while reporting from the besieged district of Baba Amr in Homs – a city now synonymous with utter devastation.
They were both killed.
Earlier this year, a US court found the Assad regime liable for the murder of Colvin in what it ruled was a deliberate artillery attack carried out to silence her reporting of the massacre that was unfolding in Homs. Only hours before the attack that killed her, Colvin’s reports from Homs were broadcast by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and CNN.
In 2014, we were reminded again of the perils of reporting from Syria, when the Times journalist Anthony Loyd and photographer Jack Hill were kidnapped, beaten and Lyod shot twice in the leg before securing refuge in Turkey. Both survived the ordeal to return – as Frank Gardner did in Saudi – to report from Syria.
These journalists, like so many others around the world, have exhibited incredible bravery and courage to obtain and disseminate information. Stories, that were in not for their work, would go untold.
But, I am sad to say, their work is getting harder. According to the US-based non-governmental organisation Freedom House, over the past decade media freedom around the world has deteriorated. The Reporters Sans Frontières online barometer (at the time of writing) reveals that year-to-date, 30 journalists – including Lyra McKee who was murdered by republican dissidents in Northern Ireland, have been killed in the line of duty. A further 231 have been imprisoned around the world.
As parliamentarians – and indeed as Conservatives, we must be the champions of media freedom. As such, we have responsibilities to work with other like-minded parliamentarians around the world to not only defend the freedoms where they exist, but to promote them where they do not.
And that is why in my capacity as Chair of the British Group of Interparliamentary Union, I convened and chaired a seminar on media freedom in London earlier this month. Joined by distinguished advocates of press freedom like the award-winning war photographer Paul Conroy, parliamentarians from numerous countries gathered to develop a strategy for advancing media freedoms. This work, which continues, builds on the FCO freedom of the press programme launched by then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt at the first Global Media Freedom Conference in July. We should be proud that our overseas aid budget is helping to strengthen the capacity of journalists working overseas to hold their Governments to account.
At home, where there are attacks on press freedom, we must continue to call them out. And as parliamentarians, we must do all we can to be its champion overseas.
This post is sponsored by Coalition for Global Prosperity.