Journalists from The Guardian, Financial Times and The Mirror were among those excluded by the Home Office on the mid-April press trip, restricting their ability to scrutinise a significant development in British foreign policy.
Among those excluded was Rajeev Syal, the Guardian’s home affairs editor, who had previously reported extensively on bullying allegations against Patel. Other home affairs specialists did accompany Patel on the trip. The Guardian said: “We are concerned that Home Office officials are deliberately excluding specific journalists from key briefings and engagements.”
The Financial Times told Press Gazette: “On this occasion our journalists were excluded from the press trip and received minimal briefing. It is clearly not good practice to exclude some media from government meetings simply because they are willing to ask difficult questions.”
Index understands it is not the first time journalists have been blacklisted by the Home Office in this way. Only a select group of reporters was invited on a trip Priti Patel made in November 2021 to Washington DC to discuss terrorism and the global migration crisis with Alejandro Mayorkas, US secretary of homeland security.
The government’s controversial scheme will see migrants who arrive in small boats after crossing the English Channel flown 4,000 miles to Rwanda to have their claims processed; in her speech in Rwanda, Patel said 28,000 migrants crossed the Channel this way in 2021.
Migrants will be encouraged to relocate to the African country. Patel said, “Those who are resettled will be given support, including up to five years of training to help with integration, accommodation, and healthcare, so that they can resettle and thrive.”
Opponents of the scheme have questioned Rwanda’s record on human rights and free expression. Journalists working in Rwanda operate under a strict accreditation system and criticism of President Paul Kagame is off limits.
In March, Human Rights Watch said Rwanda did not match up to international standards of free speech and warned of a wave of arrests of Rwandan journalists and commentators: “Judicial authorities in Rwanda, lacking the independence to stand up and protect free speech in accordance with international law, have unjustly convicted and jailed people based on their protected speech and opinions,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The first legal challenge to the Rwanda scheme was launched last week on behalf of an Iranian asylum seeker. Lawyers argue the proposals breach international law, the UN refugee convention and British data protection legislation.
In her speech in Rwanda, Patel said, “This agreement fully complies with all international and national law, and as part of this ground-breaking agreement, the UK is making a substantial investment in the economic development of Rwanda.”
The Home Office has denied targeting certain journalists and says it adheres the UK’s Government Communication Service Propriety Guidance in dealing with the media.
The Council of Europe was founded after World War II to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of rule across the continent. It is committed to upholding the European Convention on Human Rights.
The British government will be asked to provide a formal response to the alert, although it has a poor record in this regard, responding to just 10 per cent of the alerts filed in 2021.
The platform, of which Index on Censorship is a partner, reports on serious threats to the safety of journalists and media freedom in Europe in order to reinforce the Council of Europe’s response to the threats and member states’ accountability.
Many of the attacks on journalists have taken place during public protests.
“Violence against journalists during street protests is fed by a wave of media bashing and an avalanche of hate speech on social networks – very often prompted by political figures – which directly target journalists, questioning their independence and legitimacy and therefore making them more vulnerable to physical aggression,” the report says.
Overall, the number of alerts in all categories published by the CoE platform has sky-rocketed to 280 in 2021, up from around 200 in 2020 and more than double the level reported in 2016. Of the 280 alerts, 110 related to the harassment and intimidation of journalists.
Index’s policy and campaigns manager Jessica Ní Mhainín
Speaking at the launch of the report, Index’s policy and campaigns manager Jessica Ní Mhainín highlighted cases of impunity in CoE’s report.
“Impunity for crimes against journalists refer to failure of states to identify, prosecute and punish anyone including the assailants and masterminds involved in committing a crime against a journalist,” she said. “Cultures of impunity contribute to self-censorship by making journalists more vulnerable to pressures out of fear of reprisals or harm.”
Some 35 cases of impunity have been registered on the platform since 2015 and two new impunity cases – those of Turkish journalist Uğur Mumcu, murdered in 1993, and Turkish-Cypriot journalist Kutlu Adalı, murdered in Cyprus in 1996 – were added to the impunity category during the year.
“In 2021, we welcomed the Slovak Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the not-guilty verdicts of the suspected masterminds of the 2018 murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. The case will be heard in the Specialized Criminal Court later this year,” said Ní Mhainín.
Last year also saw the publication of a 438 page-report from the public inquiry into the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, which concluded that the state of Malta “must bear responsibility for the assassination because it created an atmosphere of impunity”.
“We once again call on the Maltese authorities and the Commission of Experts to implement the recommendations of the Public Inquiry,” said Ní Mhainín.
Russia, Turkey and Ukraine account for 60% of all the cases relating to impunity on the platform. Last October marked the 15th anniversary of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s murder.
Ní Mhainín said, “The masterminds of her murder are still at large, sending the incredibly dangerous message that killing a journalist is a low-risk crime.”
Yet impunity is not restricted to these countries.
A BBC Spotlight investigation has uncovered serious concerns over the police investigation and the failure to prosecute those behind the murder of Irish journalist Martin O’Hagan, who was killed in September 2001 for his reporting on paramilitary activities in Northern Ireland. The concerns raised in the programme, which aired on 2 March 2022, came in the wake of several Police Ombudsman reports that uncovered collusive behaviour between the police and loyalists in Northern Ireland. According to the BBC’s investigation, police did not act on important information – including individual names – that were handed over to them within 48 hours of the murder. The journalist’s family are now taking legal action against the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Ministry of Defence.
“Press freedom is the canary in the coal mine – it is a key indicator of the clear and worrying degree of democratic backsliding that is taking place across Europe,” said Ní Mhainín. “That’s why we once again call on Council of Europe member states to ensure that the highest priority is given to conducting thorough and transparent investigations into all crimes against journalists and we remind member states of the 2016 Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers which requires states ‘adopt appropriate criminal law provisions to prevent impunity’”
The free flow of independent and accurate news and information is essential in conflict situations. Our organisations call for urgent and practical international assistance and support for the brave journalists in Ukraine seeking to provide the Ukrainian people and the global public with a timely and realistic picture of developments, as well as foreign journalists risking their lives for reporting in and about Ukraine. Their work helps keep people safe and ensures that the international community can understand the full consequences of this invasion and its appalling impact on human lives.
The immediate physical safety of journalists on the ground – Ukrainian and foreign – is our primary concern amid the incessant escalation of hostilities. We emphasise that journalists are considered civilians under international humanitarian law and are not legitimate targets. The U.N. Security Council in 2015 adopted – by unanimous vote – Resolution 2222 affirming that states must respect and protect journalists as civilians. Resolution 2222 also confirms that media equipment and installations constitute civilian objects and shall not be the object of attack or reprisals.
The same resolution requires states to respect the professional independence and rights of journalists. The Council of Europe Platform partners condemn all efforts to restrict independent coverage of the Russian invasion and the ensuing hostilities, in particular within the Russian Federation itself. Journalists in Russia covering anti-war demonstrations have faced harassment and arbitrary detention. Russia’s media regulator continues to threaten independent media, block their websites, and force the removal of articles for deviating from the official state line on the war. This is a completely unacceptable violation of the Russian public’s right to independent information. We also condemn the continued and widespread crackdown on independent media in Belarus, where 32 journalists and media actors remain behind bars, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
The Council of Europe Platform, the first ever Europe-wide monitoring and reporting mechanism aimed at countering all forms of attacks on journalists’ physical safety and protections in law, has grown into an important means of holding European states to account for serious violations. This role has now become all the more necessary, and we are committed to documenting all attacks on journalists and other efforts to restrict journalists’ ability to report on the war. The Platform partners have regularly expressed concern that the Russian Federation has declined to reply to alerts or engage with the work of the Platform.
This unprecedented attack requires a united effort to protect the rights and safety of journalists working in Ukraine. Urgent humanitarian assistance for journalists working in Ukraine is needed to ensure that they can continue doing their job safely and securely. This includes financial support to independent media outlets as well as appropriate safety equipment and other forms of practical support. We call on Council of Europe member states to make available emergency financial support that can be distributed to journalists, journalists’ organisations and media outlets in Ukraine. At the same time, we ask all concerned governments as well as international NGOs to do everything they can to support journalists who will be forced to flee the country and set up reporting bases abroad.
Index on Censorship
Association of European Journalists
Committee to Protect Journalists
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
Index on Censorship is extremely concerned at the arrest of freelance photographer Andy Aitchison, who was arrested at his home last Thursday after covering a demonstration at a former military barracks in Kent earlier the same day. The barracks is being used to house asylum seekers in allegedly substandard conditions.
“What is happening at Napier Barracks is an issue of significant public interest,” said Jessica Ní Mhainín, senior policy research and advocacy officer at Index on Censorship. “We have every right to know what is going on there and we need journalists and photographers like Aitchison to be free to document and report on it. But instead of enabling journalists to report in the public interest, the authorities are actively preventing them from doing so.”
Five police officers went to Aitchison’s home to arrest him on suspicion of criminal damage. They seized his memory card and mobile phone, and took him to the police station even after he had shown them his National Union of Journalists membership card. They took his fingerprints and DNA, and detained him for almost seven hours before releasing him on bail until 22 February.
“This is a blatant and appalling press freedom violation, which has already – due to the terms of his bail – resulted in Aitchison being unable to cover the fire that broke out at the same barracks on Friday afternoon,” said Ní Mhainín. “We call for Aitchison’s immediate and unconditional de-arrest, and for his equipment – which should have never been seized in the first place – to be immediately returned to him”.
“Serious questions need to be asked about how this could have happened and why it is taking so long for remediation. Has the UK forgotten that it has committed to leading the Media Freedom Coalition? This is what censorship looks like – not media freedom,” Ní Mhainín said.