Attack on journalist Owen Jones shows the worsening state of press freedom in the UK

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Monday 26th August 2019 

Rt. Hon. Nicky Morgan MP Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 100 Parliament Street London SW1A 2BQ 

Dear Rt. Hon. Nicky Morgan MP, 

The undersigned organisations, including Scottish PEN, ARTICLE 19, English PEN, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Index on Censorship, National Union of Journalists Scotland and Reporters Without Borders, are concerned by the recent attack on journalist Owen Jones and the worsening state of press freedom both in the UK and across the globe. We call on the UK authorities to take all necessary actions to investigate this attack, prosecute those responsible and commit to ensuring press freedom is protected. 

The Guardian columnist Owen Jones was celebrating his birthday with friends when he was violently assaulted outside a London pub in the early morning of 17 August 2019. While the motivation behind this attack is unclear at this stage, it should be viewed in the context of a wider set of threats made against Jones, based on his writing and political positions. This includes a photo taken of him without his knowledge in a pub, with the caption “I can get close to your like minded people it’s scary. Do not underestimate my talents of my past and present I even know your address of all you radicals.” The day after the attack, The Guardian reported that “there had been ‘chatter online’ about the incident at the Lexington pub on Pentonville Road hours before [Jones] went public about it on Saturday afternoon”. Jones himself reported that “football hooligans were boasting in closed groups along the lines of ‘Owen Jones has been done in, in Islington’”. 

While journalism comes with risks, no journalist should ever be attacked in connection with their work or in their personal life. Disagreement, however hyperbolic or antagonistic, should never lead to violence. Every attack on a writer shuts down debate and sends a dangerous signal to others, encouraging them to avoid sensitive topics, however important, that may invite threats of violence. 

Unfortunately, in the UK – which is currently ranked 33rd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index – this is one of many attacks on journalists in recent times. Over the past year alone, journalist Lyra McKee was killed while reporting events in Derry, photographer Joel Goodman was assaulted while covering a demonstration 

in Manchester, a BBC camera crew was attacked by supporters of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) outside the Old Bailey in London, and in Northern Ireland, journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey faced early morning raids at their homes, were detained and questioned, and had charges brought against them and equipment confiscated in connection to their reporting on leaked documents related to the 1994 Loughinisland massacre. Such actions constitute a significant threat to press freedom, the right to free expression and to society at large as the public will be less able to access independent and impartial information. 

Around the world, journalism is becoming a more hazardous profession. Mexico remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, with over 150 journalists being murdered since 2000; hundreds of journalists have been arrested and convicted in politically motivated criminal cases in Turkey; journalists across Europe have been assassinated for their work uncovering networks of corruption and abuses of power including state entities, senior politicians and organised crime networks; and The Intercept Brazil is under increasing threats for its coverage of state corruption in Brazil. This is a small snapshot of the threats that journalists endure around the world. At a time when journalists are being decried as traitors, saboteurs, ‘enemies of the people’, or accused of participating in ‘Project Fear’, and journalism itself is being devalued, the space for a free press is severely shrinking. 

At the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London in July 2019, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office brought together leading experts to explore ways the UK and other like-minded states can meaningfully protect journalists across the globe. This was an important step, but concrete action needs to follow to ensure the issues raised are not ignored. The commitments undertaken will ring hollow if we are silent on the threats to press freedom within the UK. 

Every journalist, whether a reporter, investigative journalist, columnist, editor or cartoonist deserves all necessary protections to ensure they can continue their work free from threats of violence. If journalists are threatened into silence, we suffer, and our democracy suffers. The undersigned organisations call on all relevant UK authorities to live up to their commitments to the right to freedom of expression and to ensure that all journalists are safe to continue their work across the United Kingdom. 

We look forward to hearing from you and would be interested to schedule a meeting to talk about these issues in more detail. 

Yours sincerely, 

Carl MacDougall, President, Scottish PEN

Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia, ARTICLE 19

Maureen Freely, Chair of Trustees, English PEN

Nora Wehofsits, Advocacy Officer, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

Joy Hyvarinen, Head of Advocacy, Index on Censorship

John Toner, National Organiser for Scotland, National Union of Journalists Scotland

Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director, Reporters Without Borders [/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1566893600598-fdac8bc8-eaed-3″ taxonomies=”6534″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Richard Dawkins, communalism, and the death of an Indian hero

Richard Dawkins and ex-Muslim campaigner Maryam Namazie at a rally in support of free expression, London, February 2012. Image Demotix/Peter Marshall

Richard Dawkins and ex-Muslim campaigner Maryam Namazie at a rally in support of free expression, London, February 2012. Image Demotix/Peter Marshall

This week has seen an outbreak of atheist infighting, as Observer and Spectator writer Nick Cohen launched an attack at writers such as the Independent’s Owen Jones and the Telegraph’s Tom Chivers. Their crime, apparently was to focus criticism on atheist superstar Richard Dawkins for his tweets, particularly those about Islam and Muslims, while not criticising religious fundamentalists.

Jones and Chivers have both replied, quite reasonably, to Cohen’s article.

Dawkins’s controversial tweets display a political naivety that can often be found in organised atheism and scepticism. Anyone who’s witnessed the ongoing row within that community over feminism will recognise a certain tendency to believe that science and facts alone are virtuous, and “ideologies” based on something other than empirical data just get in the way.

Hence the professor can tweet the statement “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge” as if this in itself proves something, without further thinking about the political, historical, social and, indeed, geographical factors behind this apparent fact, and then be surprised when people object.

I’m not going to suggest that Dawkins be silenced. He can and will tweet what he wants. And it’s worth pointing out that those on the liberal left who have raised concerns about Dawkins’s pigeonholing of Muslims can be equally guilty of treating all adherents to a religion as a monolithic bloc: this happens mostly with Muslims, but often, at least in the UK with Roman Catholics as well, as if declaring the shahada or accepting the sacraments is akin to being assimilated into Star Trek’s Borg. Any amount of non-Muslim commentators who opposed the Iraq war, for example will tell you that “Muslims” care deeply about the Iraq war, neatly soliciting support for their arguments while also casting themselves as friends of a minority group. And for a great example of treating “Catholics” as a single entity, Johann Hari’s address ahead of the visit by former pope Benedict XVI to Britain in 2010, takes some beating:

I want to appeal to Britain’s Roman Catholics now, in the final days before Joseph Ratzinger’s state visit begins. I know that you are overwhelmingly decent people. You are opposed to covering up the rape of children. You are opposed to telling Africans that condoms “increase the problem” of HIV/Aids. You are opposed to labelling gay people “evil”. The vast majority of you, if you witnessed any of these acts, would be disgusted, and speak out. Yet over the next fortnight, many of you will nonetheless turn out to cheer for a Pope who has unrepentantly done all these things.

I believe you are much better people than this man. It is my conviction that if you impartially review the evidence of the suffering he has inflicted on your fellow Catholics, you will stand in solidarity with them – and join the [anti-Pope] protesters.”

Hari is literally telling people what they think. A bit like the Vatican tries to do.

Communalist rhetoric, whether used to attack or support certain groups, is the enemy of free speech, as it automatically discredits dissenting voices: “If you do not believe X, as I say members of group Y do, then you cannot be a true member of the group; ergo you can be ignored, or censored.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in India, where communalism, thanks to the British Empire, is enshrined in law. The 1860 penal code of India makes it illegal to “outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. This establishes, in an odd inversion of the United States’s model of secularism, a state where all religions are privileged, while those who criticise them are unprotected. And in India, that can be dangerous.

Sixty-seven-year-old Narendra Dabholkar was killed this week, shot dead on his morning walk.

Dabholkar was a rationalist activist, in a country where that means a little bit more than agreeing or disagreeing with Richard Dawkins. Dabholkar and his comrades such as Sanal Edamaruku have for years been engaged in a war against the superstition that leaves poor Indians open to exploitation from “holy men”. A large part of their work involves revealing the workings of the tricks of the magic men, like a deadly serious Penn and Teller. Edamaruku famously appeared on television in 2008, trying not to laugh as a guru attempted to prove that he can kill the rationalist with his mind. Dabholkar was agitating for a bill in that would curtail “magic” practitioners in Maharashtra state.

Edamaraku is now in exile, fleeing blasphemy charges and death threats that resulted after he debunked the “miracle” of a weeping statue at a Mumbai Catholic church. His friend is dead. Both victims of those who have most to gain from communalism: the con men and fundamentalists for whom the individual dissenting voice is a threat. Atheists, sceptics and everyone else have a duty to protect these people, and to avoid easy generalisations, whether malicious or well meant.