SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

UK should be more innovative in defending press freedom, says Amal Clooney

Source The Guardian
Thursday , 20 February 2020
Amal Clooney, the UK government’s special envoy on media freedom, has renewed her criticism of Donald Trump as she acknowledged that her ambitious plans to combat media repression globally were being launched into a “pretty bleak” human rights landscape.
The British-Lebanese barrister told the Guardian that simple arguments about accountability for genocide that should have been easy to win at the UN security council had fallen foul of UN division.
“At the same time some of the language used about journalists by authoritarian leaders is inspired by the language that came from the US president,” she said in an interview.
Clooney, who has repeatedly harangued Trump for his attacks on the media, said there had also been times when she would have preferred British ministers to do more to voice their concern about press freedom when meeting autocrats such as the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
But Clooney – and the phalanx of media and human rights lawyers she has helped assemble – are far from daunted. “This is certainly not the time to give up the fight,” she said.
Clooney also believes that the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, is personally determined to take up the proposals she unveiled this week in London alongside a panel of senior international lawyers, including the former president of the UK’s supreme court David Neuberger.
A statutory instrument, potentially the most important of this parliament, is expected shortly setting out precisely how the UK government will introduce targeted sanctions against individuals, including ministers, abusing human rights, such as the right to free expression. The US and Canada have already introduced such measures, and the European Union announced in December it was looking at similar proposals.
The aim is to target anyone throwing journalists in jail, or shutting down the internet. Whole countries will not be targeted, but individuals, ministers, prosecutors and jailers. The chief sanction will be confiscation of assets and travel bans.
It is a novel approach building on the so-called Magnitsky human rights sanctions first introduced in the US.
“If world leaders are becoming more united and more innovative in finding ways to silence the press, shouldn’t we as defenders of the press do the same,” Clooney said.
She acknowledged that the current state of global media suppression would make things difficult for the Foreign Office (FCO). Foreign governments, discovering their communications minister has been sanctioned, are hardly likely to rush to strike a trade deal with the UK.
“We recognise diplomatically it could be awkward for a foreign minister in their first day in office to impose sanctions on scores of other ministers of foreign affairs due to human rights abuses,” she said.
Clooney’s report has proposed ways to embolden ministers by protecting them from the likely diplomatic flak. Ending what has been described as “the silence of democracies” over media repression was more likely, she argued, if the democracies all spoke with one voice. “There is safety in numbers, so that is why this needs international sign-up,” something the FCO is seeking with its pledge on media freedom, which has been signed by more than 30 countries.
Canada felt badly isolated when Saudi Arabia launched economic reprisals for Ottawa’s sanctions after the killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The report suggested that UK ministers could be shielded from diplomatic fallout by the establishment of an independent national body that made objective recommendations on the most egregious cases of media repression.
Clooney’s panel now wants to look at the consular assistance diplomats give threatened journalists, the possibility of emergency visas to rescue journalists at risk, requiring countries to open trials of reporters, and improving obligations on countries to be transparent about the arrest of journalists.
Reports by the high-level panel are due this year on the improper curtailment of free speech via sedition laws, overly broad hate speech laws, anti-terrorism laws and the misuse of concepts such as fake news.
Time will tell how far Raab is prepared to run with this campaign. “Autocrats hold dear control of the media,” Clooney said – and there are many modern autocrats in the world that would resent a western country telling them to un-muzzle their media.
“All I can do as a human rights lawyer is keep trying to move an issue further up the to-do list and keep pushing so where a country is wavering they are more likely to do something than not. But yes, it is a pretty bleak landscape when it comes to accountability for human rights abuses.”

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