English PEN’s Director Jo Glanville reports on current threats to freedom of expression and the vital need to protect it, both at home and abroad, for Today’s Zaman
This week, the British media was dismayed to learn that police had bypassed legal safeguards in order to access a journalist’s sources — the protection of sources is recognised in international law as a cornerstone of press freedom and there have been similar worrying instances of flouting that protection in the US, too. As the director of a free speech organisation based in London, English PEN, which campaigns for writers and journalists in the UK and around the world, I believe that PEN has to campaign for robust protections for freedom of expression in its own backyard if it’s going to have any credibility when calling for reform abroad.
So it was a shock earlier this year when Turkey’s former prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, accused UK Prime Minister David Cameron of closing down a newspaper. It was an inaccurate comment — the News of the World was closed down in 2011 by its proprietor Rupert Murdoch, following a public outcry at the newspaper’s routine and illegal use of phone hacking — but it demonstrated how the UK’s recent crisis over media standards can be easily manipulated for political capital abroad. Confidence in the press has been severely undermined in the UK since the phone hacking revelations. Some of the most outstanding writers and journalists in the country now back a new system of press regulation that will introduce unprecedented penalties against newspapers that refuse to join the regulator and that gives Parliament the possibility of intervening in the regulation of the press for the first time in more than 300 years. For free speech advocates in Britain, the current climate not only undermines the future of media freedom at home, but it also spells trouble for the protection of free speech abroad when a leader such as Erdoğan, with a track record of hostility to the press, cites censorship in the UK to make his case.