I am very grateful to have the opportunity to debate the very important issue of the international protection of journalists. I am also delighted to see so many colleagues present. We have only an hour so I will endeavour to keep my remarks brief. I thank all those who have helped me with the preparation for the debate and for the more general work they do in this field, particularly Reporters Sans Frontières, Index on Censorship, the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the BBC World Service.

 

Journalists play a vital role in a free society. Their role in exposing corruption, highlighting injustice and holding Governments to account helps to make a democracy function, but it does not always make them popular. Sadly, in authoritarian regimes, that often leads to imprisonment, being taken hostage, intimidation and sometimes even death.

 

There are varying figures for the record over the past year, but all agree that 2018 was one of the worst years on record for journalists being killed, imprisoned or held hostage. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, 80 journalists were killed in 2018 during the course of their duties; 348 are being held in prison and 60 held hostage. The countries with the worst records are perhaps predictable: in terms of deaths, they are Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, Yemen and India.

 

Perhaps the most high profile death was that of Jamal Khashoggi, who died in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It is reported that 11 people are on trial for that in Saudi Arabia, but we have little knowledge of the evidence to suggest that they ultimately bear responsibility. That death was condemned by Turkey—the country in which it took place—but Turkey’s record inspires little confidence. Turkey has 33 journalists imprisoned. One journalist, Pelin Ünker, was sentenced only in the last few days to a year’s imprisonment for her work in investigating the paradise papers. It is for that reason that international bodies have called for an international, independent investigation into what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. The worst countries for imprisonment of journalists are China, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

 

I want to mention in particular the work of the BBC World Service, which I have a particular regard for, and the Persian service of the BBC. Its journalists have suffered a relentless campaign against not just them but their families that are still in Iran. BBC World Service journalists in Russia have also found that their data has been published online with an encouragement to hound them. The BBC has made protests against that.

 

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I chair the all-party parliamentary BBC group, as he will know from his previous role. It is the case that 152 named individuals, many of whom are based here in London, working for BBC Persia have been stopped from buying or selling property, and their families have been accused of the most hideous things, which is impacting their relatives in Iran. Does he join me in calling for the Minister to do everything he can to protect those individuals?

 

I absolutely join my hon. Friend. I will call upon the Minister to make it a routine matter to raise concerns about the safety of journalists whenever we have contact with countries where, sadly, imprisonments or deaths have taken place.

 

I rise as the chair of the cross-party group of the National Union of Journalists. I was very interested in the figures the right hon. Gentleman presented. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 94 journalists and media staff were killed in work-related incidents last year. In the light of that, does he agree that the UK Government might be called on to do everything possible to support the call for a new United Nations convention on the protection of journalists and media workers?

 

It is correct that there is a small difference in the figures from RSF and the International Federation. What we all agree is that the figures are extremely worrying and have been going up. That is the reason for the debate. I absolutely join the hon. Lady in calling on the Government to do more. I know the Minister will want to set that out in due course.

 

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. I welcome this debate. Does he agree in the same vein that the Foreign Office has a very serious and important role in the protection of journalists, and that it must do all it can to protect journalists and our citizens wherever they are?

 

I agree. I was going to say and probably will say again that I absolutely welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to prioritise this issue and for the UK to take a lead internationally in pressing for more to be done. The hon. Lady’s calls have been heard in the Foreign Office and I hope this will prove an opportunity for the Minister to tell us a little about what is intended.

 

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the IFJ. Will he join me in paying tribute to the work of the IFJ and the NUJ? Does he agree that strong trade unions are a force for good in protecting democracy and freedom of expression?

 

I do not always leap to say that trade unions are a force for good, but in this instance I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. The International Federation of Journalists does great work alongside the other organisations that I mentioned. This is a priority area for non-governmental organisations and a lot of work is being done but, unfortunately, one reason is that the record is so poor at present.

 

I talked about countries that perhaps will not have come as a great surprise—places such as China, which has the worst record for imprisonment, and Afghanistan and Syria. Sadly, it is also happening in Europe. I want particularly to mention the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta at the end of October 2017, and the death of Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and Victoria Marinova in Bulgaria. The climate that provokes hostility towards journalism is, to some extent, encouraged by intemperate remarks from people who really should know better. I do not want to single out President Trump, but I think his attacks on journalism generally have not helped in this regard. When someone such as the President of Czech Republic holds up a mock assault rifle labelled “for journalists”, that clearly will lead to a climate in which journalists have reason to fear.

 

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that even in this country we have to be very careful what we say about our attitudes to journalists, as to politicians and everyone else. As a former journalist, I am well aware that one of the prerequisites for the job is the willingness to put yourself at risk in order to uncover public injustice in this country and abroad. Perhaps we need to be very wary in this country, as elsewhere in Europe, about the intemperate language we use.

 

I agree with the hon. Lady. Like almost everyone in this House I suspect, I have had occasion to be deeply unhappy about some of the things that journalists have done, but I recognise that freedom of the press is a vital component of a free society. Therefore, to some extent we have to take the reports that we do not like alongside those that we do.

 

Since we are talking about Europe, does my right hon. Friend welcome and support the work of the Council of Europe to protect journalists, and the new platform it has set up that makes it very public which journalists have been attacked and imprisoned unjustly?

 

I very much support the work of the Council of Europe. I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which also highlights journalistic abuses but, unfortunately, as I just said, Europe does not have a spotless record. Indeed, the new country holding the presidency of European Union, Romania, has a poor record of intimidation of journalists.

 

The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous with interventions. He will be aware that the Council of Europe has taken up the case of Mehman Huseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist and human rights activist who has been in prison for nearly two years for the so-called crime of slander. He has been on hunger strike for two weeks. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the British Government should also take up Mr Huseynov’s case and make representations to the Azerbaijani authorities?

 

I agree entirely with the hon. and learned Lady. I have my own criticisms of Azerbaijan and regard it as a badge of honour that I am blacklisted from visiting. That is a particularly bad case and he should be added to the list of those we are pursuing internationally at every opportunity.

 

I want to allow as many people as possible to speak, so I will make just two points to finish. First, as I indicated, I am encouraged by the Foreign Secretary’s statements that he wants to prioritise this. I understand that the British Government intends to organise an international conference on the subject of the protection of journalists later this year, which is a very welcome initiative. As the newly elected chair of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I intend to organise a parallel conference alongside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office one. While the FCO can try and reach agreement among Governments that more needs to be done on as wide a basis as possible, we can try to mobilise parliamentarians from different countries to give this priority. I look forward to working with the Minister in due course.

 

Secondly, there have been calls for a UN special representative for the safety of journalists. That would demonstrate the importance with which the issue is held by the UN. At present, it comes within a broader remit, but the specific appointment of somebody to highlight the safety of journalists would help. I understand that something like 30 countries have signed up to that proposition, so I hope the Government would consider adding our support in due course.

 

Sadly, there are a lot of cases and I could spend a great deal of time talking about them. Hon. Members have taken the opportunity to raise some of them. I am encouraged that so many of them have come to the debate, so I will deliberately keep what I say short so that as many as possible have the opportunity to contribute.

My right hon. Friend said in her statement that alternative arrangements making use of technology could be put in place that would render the backstop unnecessary. Will she therefore incorporate those arrangements and go back to the EU and ask for a free trade agreement along the lines that Michel Barnier proposed and said was the only way to ensure her red lines were not breached, and which would deliver on what the British people voted for?

 

The alternative arrangements are specifically referenced in the withdrawal agreement, and of course what we are looking for, and have set out in the political declaration and the proposals the Government have put forward, is indeed a wide-ranging free trade area; it is just a better one than the EU was proposing to us.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the Government’s support for Ukraine in the face of increased Russian aggression. Will she look at ways of stepping up pressure on Russia to release not just the 24 sailors, but the 68 other Ukrainian political prisoners held in occupied Crimea and in Russia, and to cease the blockade of Berdyansk and Mariupol in the sea of Azov?

 

 

As my right hon. Friend points out, recent events in Ukraine are not the only example of Russian aggression, and in fact they fit into a pattern of Russian behaviour. We will continue to press for appropriate action to be taken in these matters. As I said in response to a previous question, the UK has been leading in the EU in pressing for sanctions, and we will continue to do so. I look forward to discussing with EU leaders the further steps that can be taken.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Russian action in the sea of Azov and the subsequent declaration of martial law in parts of Ukraine.

 

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated yesterday, we condemn Russia’s aggression against the Ukrainian vessels that sought to enter the sea of Azov on 25 November. We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of the Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia and call for their release urgently. Russia has again shown its willingness to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, following the illegal annexation of Crimea and the construction of the Kerch bridge.

 

The United Kingdom remains committed to upholding the rules-based international system, which Russia continues to flout. Our position is clear: Russia’s actions are not in conformity with the United Nations convention on the law of the sea or the 2003 Russia-Ukraine bilateral agreement, which provides free passage in the sea of Azov, including for military ships. The United Kingdom ambassador reiterated that position at emergency meetings held yesterday at NATO, the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN Security Council.

 

In response to Russian aggression, the Ukrainian Parliament agreed to impose martial law in 10 Ukrainian regions for 30 days, commencing at 09:00 local time on 28 November. We welcome President Poroshenko’s reassurances that martial law will not be used to restrict the rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens, and that full mobilisation will be considered only in the case of further Russian aggression. We also welcome the Ukrainian Parliament’s resolution confirming that presidential elections will go ahead on 31 March 2019.

 

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this represents a serious escalation of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has already led to over 10,000 deaths in Donbass since 2014? Will he recognise that we, as signatories of the Budapest memorandum, have a special responsibility? May I therefore welcome the support we are already giving, including the announcement by the Defence Secretary, following his own visit to Donbass very recently, that we will be deploying HMS Echo to the Black sea in 2019?

 

May I also welcome the Minister’s statement that what Russia has done is a clear breach of international law? Will he now specifically seek to find opportunities for the Prime Minister to discuss this with President Poroshenko? Will he reiterate his call for the immediate release of the 23 sailors now being held by the Russians, some of whom we understand are now in Simferopol in occupied Crimea and six of whom are badly wounded?

 

Will the Minister also look at imposing personal sanctions on the military personnel who have already been shown to be involved in co-ordinating this operation, as well as at increasing the economic sanctions on Russia, at least to the level that Canada and the United States are already imposing?

 

 

Again, I thank my right hon. Friend. Yes, he refers to a serious escalation that the recent incidents have illustrated, and the UK Government absolutely agree with him on that. I am pleased that he mentioned the recent visit of my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary. On other proposals, we have no plans to change our conduct of activity in the area.

 

My right hon. Friend asked whether this is a breach of international law. The United Kingdom’s assessment is that, under the UN convention on the law of the sea, states can require any warship not in compliance with the laws and regulations of the coastal state to leave immediately. However, Russia’s actions in ramming, boarding and seizing vessels do not conform with the law of the sea. Russia’s actions were disproportionate, particularly as the ships had left the area and were returning to the Black sea. The 2003 sea of Azov bilateral treaty between Ukraine and Russia provides for the free passage of the military and civilian vessels of both states through the Kerch strait and in the sea of Azov, so my right hon. Friend is right to suggest that this is a breach of international law. I know the Prime Minister has today received a request to speak to the Ukrainian Prime Minister and that, in her busy timetable, she will be giving that urgent consideration.

 

On sanctions, measures have been taken in the past in relation to previous activity by Russia and sanctions were recently considered in relation to both the Crimea annexation and of course the building of the Kerch bridge. Any further sanctions will be considered in co-operation with European partners and others. It is very important that there is a sense of unity in response to what has taken place. The United Kingdom was active in calling a meeting of EU partners yesterday, and the other meetings that took place also saw a very strong response from the United Kingdom and others.

 

The House is right to see this as a serious matter, and it is important that it is not escalated further. That is why we have indeed called for the immediate release of the sailors, and we ask that all parties act with restraint but certainly recognise where the act of aggression came from in the first place.

My right hon. Friend said that one of the benefits of leaving the EU is the ability to sign trade agreements with third countries, but what realistic prospect is there for that while we remain within the customs union and even after that, when we have pledged to maintain

 

“deep regulatory and customs cooperation”

 

covering goods—probably the very goods that people want to sell to us?

 

We will be able to sign free trade arrangements with the rest of the world, and we already have significant interest from various parts of the world. I take my right hon. Friend’s point about our proposal on frictionless trade with a commitment—subject to a parliamentary lock—in relation to the common rulebook on goods and agricultural products. Of course, many of those rules are international standards; they are not just EU-related standards, but standards that our manufacturers would abide by in any case. That is a key issue. We want to have good trade relations and agreements not only with countries in the rest of the world, but with the EU.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his visit to the frontline in Donbass recently. In the light of the illegal seizure of the Ukrainian vessels yesterday, will he look to see what further support we can give to Ukraine?

 

The whole world is in shock about what has happened, and I very much hope that this is something that can be looked at by the United Nations in terms of what action can be taken against Russia for displaying such aggressive behaviour against its neighbour.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the concerns expressed by a number of organisations campaigning for media freedom, such as Reporters Sans Frontières, that the Interpol wanted person alert system is being abused by countries that are opposed to a free press, to target and silence journalists? Does she agree with these organisations that there needs to be a review of the thousands of alerts currently sitting on that system and that countries that abuse the system should be held to account? Does she also share my concern that this is hardly likely to happen under the Russian candidate for the presidency?

 

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s extensive work in this area and thank him very much for putting those important points before the House today. As he knows, article 3 of Interpol’s constitution forbids the organisation to undertake any intervention or activity of a political nature. Any such misuse of Interpol notices is taken very, very seriously by this Government. The UK continues to take a strongly supportive stance in relation to Interpol’s efforts to ensure that systems are in place to protect human rights—indeed, the Home Office has been highly proactive in its engagement with Interpol on this matter. I appreciate the important work that my right hon. Friend mentioned. I assure him that the UK will continue to be a staunch friend of those who are on the side of human rights and media freedom around the world.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s recognition that the economic difficulties facing Johnston Press are the same ones that are now affecting all local newspapers, and that this situation is contributing to a real threat to the proper functioning of local democracy. Will he consider that one way of addressing this is to build on the BBC’s local democracy initiative, which is already funding 150 journalists? The obvious people to make an extra contribution towards this initiative are the internet technology giants, which are responsible for at least some of the problems now affecting newspapers.

 

I will first address my right hon. Friend’s second point. He is right that we need to consider the impact on local news of the increasing transfer of particular advertising to online platforms. Of course, it is also important to consider how we ensure that content is properly paid for when it is used. He is also right that local democracy reporters have a part to play. It is important to note that the content they produce is made available to local newspapers, and I am sure that this assists those local newspapers in producing copy.

Further to that question, without in any way wishing to diminish the horror of what happened to Mr Khashoggi, is the Secretary of State aware that Mr Khashoggi is one of 72 journalists, citizen journalists and media assistants who have been killed so far this year, according to Reporters Sans Frontières? May I, therefore, very much welcome his statement about looking to see what more can be done to protect journalists and urge him to pursue that internationally?

 

I am very happy to heed the advice of my right hon. Friend on that point. I had not heard the 72 number, but it is very sobering. All I would say is that, at the moment, there is a worrying trend, almost a fashion, towards autocracy and regimes thinking that they can attack freedom of expression and media freedom with impunity. That is something that the UK could never stand aside and allow to happen.