Reporters Without Borders has named the UK the worst country in Western Europe for press freedom in its annual World Index — the only other core European Union country to score poorer being Italy.
The organisation ranks the UK 33rd out of 180 countries in the world, behind Jamaica, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Surinam, Namibia, Latvia, Cabo Verde and Ghana — not states typically associated with thriving and open media cultures — and far lower than its nearest European neighbours, including Ireland (15th), the Netherlands (4th), Belgium (9th) and Germany (13th).
— RSF (@RSF_inter) April 18, 2019
"The menacing Investigatory Powers Act remained on the books with insufficient protection mechanisms for whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources. In September, the UK's mass surveillance regime was found to violate the European Convention on Human Rights, including with respect to the protection of journalistic sources. New counter-terrorism and crime legislation was introduced that would restrict reporting and put journalists' data — and their ability to guarantee source protection — at risk. The government continued to explore means of restricting encryption tools," the organisation said.
Whitehall's failure to make good on its promise, made in March 2018, to repeal the "threatening" Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 was also slammed. Index On Censorship, which "strongly opposes" the measure, states the regulation "protects the rich and powerful" and is "a gift to the corrupt and conniving to silence investigative journalists".
Media outlets without "very deep pockets" would be particularly impacted by Section 40, meaning special interest investigative news platforms "could shy away" from exposing government officials or powerful individuals engaged in corrupt activity — even if a publication's reporting is demonstrably true, it could be forced to pay both its own legal costs and those of any claimant challenging a story.
Journalists in Jail
Moreover, RWB highlighted the little-reported case of Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, two journalists in Northern Ireland arrested in August 2018.
The pair were arrested as part of an investigation into the apparent theft of confidential documents from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI), after sensitive material ended up in a documentary they helped produce, No Stone Unturned, about the unsolved murder of six men at Loughinisland in County Down in 1994. The victims were watching that year's World Cup in their local pub when a masked gunman burst in and fired indiscriminately at the crowd using a Czech-made automatic weapon.
The documentary revealed the police had a clear idea of who was responsible from the very outset — but despite the getaway vehicle, a gun and a bag full of balaclavas being found by investigators, nobody was ever charged for the mass-killing, and much evidence was either mislaid or destroyed by authorities.
In conjunction with the arrest of Birney and McCaffrey, detectives conducted raids on their homes and the premises of production company Fine Point Films in Belfast, seizing documents and computer equipment in the process. Lawyers for Fine Point Films brought emergency proceedings to Belfast High Court in response, challenging the legality of the search warrant used by police. Alex Gibney, who directed No Stone Unturned, said the duo had been arrested for producing "good, hard-hitting journalism".
Commenting on the arrests, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland Programme Director Patrick Corrigan said the arrests were of "deep concern".
"Journalists must be free to investigate and expose issues of public concern. Few subjects could be of more significant public concern than the mass shooting of civilians and the alleged collusion of the police in assisting those responsible to evade justice. These arrests will send a worrying message to other journalists in Northern Ireland and could have a chilling effect on legitimate investigative reporting," he added.
— RSF (@RSF_inter) April 11, 2019
The UK's National Union of Journalists' acting general secretary Seamus Dooley also expressed "grave concern".
"The protection of journalistic sources of confidential information is of vital importance and journalists must be free to operate in the public interest without police interference. These journalists are entitled to claim journalistic privilege and to seek the protection of the legal system if there is any attempt to force them to reveal sources. Journalists throughout the UK and Ireland will support Trevor and Barry in any stand they take to lawfully protect their confidential sources. It's profoundly depressing to note that, yet again, priority appears to be given to tracking down the source of journalistic stories rather than solving murders in Northern Ireland," he said.