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Coronavirus

Covid, cash and contracts
Boris Johnson’s UK government faces multiple inquiries into the latest scandal over business lobbying even though it has so far rejected an Opposition  Labour call for a full Parliamentary inquiry. The Prime Minister himself faces charges of lying and a growing raft of questions over his own conduct although he or some of his ministers have denied any wrongdoing:
- did he break ministerial rules in questionable contact about Covid ventilators with major Conservative donor and Brexit supporter James Dyson
- how did he pay for refurbishing his Downing Street residence – questions reopened in a blistering public attack by his former chief aide and advisor Dominic Cummings
- did he really say he’d prefer to see “bodies pile high in their thousands” in a moment of arguing against a possible third Covid lockdown.
There are multiple other questions . And these have increased since a series of revelations by the FT and Sunday Times newspapers exposed attempts by former Prime Minister David Cameron to get access to emergency Covid funding for his employer Greensill Capital through cabinet ministers and civil servants. The scandal amplifies already serious questions about UK government spending on combatting Covid 19. The UK High Court made another ruling on April 29 ordering the UK government to disclose documents and correspondence relating to ministers’ knowledge of a scheme that allowed suppliers with political links to access multimillion pound contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) at the start of the pandemic. Campaign group the Good Law Project is suing the government over its decision to award contracts and said it could reveal the names of four more companies involved. Previously the court ruled the UK government acted unlawfully over public contracts in the coronavirus crisis. The High Court in London ruled on Feb.19 that the government failed to publish timely information about billions of pounds worth of public contracts. The Good Law Project and three opposition MPs brought the legal challenge over the government’s own strict time limits, which specify that any state contract award notices must be published within a 30 day period of the deals being finalised. During the court hearing, the government accepted that there had been technical breaches of its obligations. Please see here for the court judgment. The Opposition Labour party called on Health Secretary Matt Hancock to “commit to cleaning up cronyism”.
And a report from the UK Parliament’s public accounts committee said on March 10 there is no evidence to show that the £37 billion being spent on the privatized test-and-trace program has helped to reduce infection levels. The cross-party spending watchdog challenged ministers to justify the “staggering investment of taxpayers’ money” and criticised the use of expensive private consultants – 2500 still employed in February paid an estimated £1100 per day with the highest rate at over £6000 per day. The MPs' report questioned:
- an over-reliance on consultants
- failure to be ready for a surge in demand for tests in September
- never meeting its time target to turn around tests done face-to-face
- not providing enough work for contact tracers.
An opinion poll showed the public overwhelmingly considered the system a failure.
The searing Parliamentary report came just a few days after the government proposed a 1% pay rise for National Health Service nurses – effectively a pay cut as it’s below the rate of inflation and derided as “pitiful” by angry nursing organizations which threatened strike action. The actual pay rise still has to be considered by the NHS pay review panel and decided by the cabinet but the prime minister and government faced a major backlash, especially given they had praised NHS staff as heroes for the past year of the covid crisis. Two public opinion polls – one for the Observer newspaper and the other for inews – showed widespread public support for larger pay increases.
There have been mounting questions about the government’s awarding of covid-related contracts especially over issues of transparency and
who’s making money from them – a question not unique to the UK – as well as questionable practices in awarding multi-million pound contracts. In November Parliament’s spending watchdog criticised the government for a series of shortcomings when it awarded more than £17 billion of contracts to private companies to counter the Covid-19 pandemic, including deals to supply personal protective equipment to NHS staff.

UK Police Bill threatens free speech

The UK government is facing widespread opposition and criticism over proposed legislation that would allow police to curb the right of protest and could endanger freedom of expression. AEJ UK Secretary Charles Jenkins writes that the new laws are a “severe challenge to peaceful freedom of protest long regarded as one of the fundamental rights of British citizens and indeed of those of all properly democratic countries” and notes that the legislation “looks more like the rule book of an authoritarian regime than a democracy”. The new Police, Sentencing and Courts Bill would amend the Public Order Act of 1986 on the regulation of protest marches.

- More than 700 legal scholars have sent an open letter urging the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ditch the “draconian” restrictions.

- 245 charities, community groups and campaigners have joined a campaign by human rights group Liberty and environmental group Friends of the Earth to stop the legislation.

- Prominent members of Johnson’s own Conservative party have raised  serious concerns – former Prime Minister Theresa May, former attorney general Dominic Grieve (about 19:18 minutes into this BBC interview), and joining with him in a joint letter even pro Brexit and Covid lockdown opponent Steve Baker.

- Even senior police and crime commissioners across England and Wales have said the proposed law goes too far.

The government’s new police bill with its potential for long lasting restrictions to public protest is facing detailed scrutiny in Parliament. Perhaps illustrative of the complexities of its implementation – people’s rights, public order, public safety, political agendas - is the government’s own role in controversial police handling of a vigil on March 13 for Sarah Everard, abducted, raped and murdered after walking through a park in Clapham south London. Late in the vigil police forcibly arrested several people in an intervention many said was misjudged. It appears from a memo leaked to The Guardian newspaper that the government supported and encouraged the police action even though it later criticized it in the wake of criticism. Please see here for Charles Jenkins’ article on the new bill.

Police Bill Protests
Objections to the proposed UK Police Bill that could restrict protest and freedom of expression for a long time into the future are also in danger of being confused and hijacked by anti-Covid lockdown campaigners and others. A protest in Bristol organised against the new bill on March 21 turned violent - local Avon and Somerset Police said what started "as a peaceful protest" had been "turned by a small minority into a violent disorder". The city’s mayor Marvin Rees warned that the “lawlessness on show” will be “used as evidence and promote the need for the bill”. A London demonstration the previous day against lockdown restrictions – including prominent anti-vaccine and conspiracy theorists - similarly ended in arrests. Meanwhile there were genuine demonstrations against the new police bill across the country on the weekend.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that opponents of the new police bill are confused with anti-lockdown protesters as well as others – in many cases the issue is portrayed as the same, the right to protest. Much mainstream media coverage has not clearly distinguished between the two and even Members of Parliament and Liberty have conflated them. For the past year multiple groups of people – far right figures, long-time conspiracy theorists, Covid deniers, anti-vaxxers opposed to the Covid vaccines, anti-lockdown protesters - have been brought together in a long-running and shadowy campaign to oppose the UK government’s temporary Covid safety regulations – which allow restrictions on public gatherings. Such protests are by no means restricted to the UK and have spread around the world on both a large and small scale.  Even a seemingly innocent Hokey Cokey display in a Hastings park turns out to be connected to a global campaign by A Stand in the Park, which appears to have been started in Australia and claims to stand “for unity, for truth & for freedom”.
In Bristol two subsequent protests on March 23 and 26 exposed an added mosaic of different protesters – pro-
women's rights, anti-police bill, "van dwellers"and travellers' supporters, left-wing anti-establishment protesters from Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter – combined with questionable policing and police tactics. In the wake of violence between protesters and police, leading politicians, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Opposition Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer,  predictably expressed outrage and alarm at the danger to public safety, further amplifying the media storm. There are alternative interpretations of events in Bristol – for instance here in the FT (Financial Times), local co-operative newspaper and website the Bristol Cable, left wing website The Canary and from the Anarchist Federation. And it may take a while to clarify and decipher the various forces involved:
How and why does peaceful protest turn into violence?
Is peaceful and legitimate objection to specific issues getting hijacked by people with other agendas?
Who are the different protesters and what are their issues?

Not so hidden agendas
Amidst the confusion and controversy brought by the coronavirus, Boris Johnson’s office has kept pushing its key agendas such as revamping the civil service – replacing a series of key civil servants including the top one – and pursuing a hard Brexit, including the appointment of controversial former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott as a trade adviser.
Please see here for more on reaction to the UK government’s management of the coronavirus crisis.

The Covid Future

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced his plan for coming out of a two-month lockdown with a staged series of measures opening schools, retail and leisure locations, hospitality venues, sports centres and events, travel, and social distancing. Unsurprisingly there has been reaction across multiple sectors along with questions and criticism about the details particularly from the hospitality industry, the education sector, academics and scientists, and right wing politicians in his own party's

so-called Covid Recovery Group. Johnson’s “roadmap” is aimed at easing the lockdown he imposed in early January aimed at halting the spread of Covid-19 in England. His nation-wide television announcement came after mounting concern about continuing rapid spread of the coronavirus and weeks of criticism about delays and questionable handling of pupils’ return to school in the new year. The measures on January 4 – along with similar rules in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, the other nations of the UK - were the latest in a sequence of increasingly tighter restrictions through December including adding London and much of the southeast to the highest Tier 4 level just before Christmas and much of the rest of England right afterwards. They came along with a burgeoning ray of hope across the world for the success of the first anti-Covid vaccines – vaccines that the UK had successfully pre-ordered and allowed it to be the first in the world to start vaccinating people. Despite that success, the Johnson government’s later decision to extend the time between two required inoculations without proper testing raised serious questions from two major drug regulators – the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) - as well as the first vaccine developer (Pfizer/BioNTech). The lockdown measures signalled the end of the Johnson government’s attempts to loosen restrictions through the holidays and came less than a week before Christmas. That U-turn came after growing pressure for action from medical experts - in a rare joint editorial in the British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal on December 15 and warnings of problems from its own scientific advisors a month earlier, warnings echoed by the Opposition Labour Party. The Prime Minister claimed he made the decision because new scientific data showed a new strain of the virus was spreading much faster than the previous one.

Please see here for more on the sequence of previous covid action by the UK government.


Covid and the Media
The coronavirus pandemic has marked a worrying new wave of serious threats and attacks on media freedom in Europe said the latest annual report of the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists. In a report titled “Hands Off Press Freedom: Attacks on Media in Europe must not become a New Normal” the fourteen member press freedom organisations including the AEJ documented how several Council of Europe member states have detained journalists for critical reporting, vastly expanded surveillance, and passed new laws to punish “fake news” even as they decide themselves what is allowable and what is false without the oversight of appropriate independent bodies. The report – available in full here – said these threats risk a tipping point in the fight to preserve a free media in Europe and aggravate an already gloomy outlook. The AEJ has played an active part with other media freedom organisations to highlight such attempts as detailed in this report from William Horsley, AEJ media freedom representative and UK chairman.

And in a statement marking World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić urged governments to avoid misusing the COVID-19 situation to silence or hinder journalists.
 

Misuse of emergency measures
As many governments introduced sweeping laws to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, the AEJ has joined other media freedom groups in two urgent calls to European leaders to protect media freedom. They have called for “determined actions” from the Council of Europe, the 47-nation treaty-based human rights organisation, to protect the free flow of information and journalists’ right to report amid fears of a potentially dangerous slide towards authoritarianism and police-state societies. In particular the open letter cites Hungary - where the prime minister has open-ended powers to rule by decree and journalists and others are subject to prison sentences for promoting alleged “false information” or impeding government orders – as well as Slovenia and the Czech Republic which have suspended usual press conferences open to questions from journalists.

“The present emergency situation represents a critical threat both to public health and to the civil and political rights of people across Europe,” said William Horsley, AEJ media freedom representative and AEJ UK chairman. “Now is the time for free and independent media and for all those who believe in basic democratic standards and open government, to combine forces and to uphold the free flow of information and the inalienable rights of everyone as guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights.” 
Please see the open letter here to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, and the current and next presidents of the Committee of Ministers, the organisation’s executive decision-making body.

It follows an urgent warning against misuse of emergency laws from the AEJ and partner organisations to the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, and European Parliament. It emphasizes that the free flow of independent news is essential both to maintain accurate information to the public and to ensure public scrutiny and debate on emergency measures, and notes all such measures must be necessary, proportionate, temporary and strictly time-limited, and subject to regular scrutiny to ensure excessive powers do not undermine democratic balances, including the free press.

The urgent letter supports a joint statement from three global special rapporteurs on freedom of expression with the UN, OSCE and the OAS and is signed by:

AEJ
ARTICLE 19

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

Index on Censorship

International Federation of Journalists

International Press Institute (IPI)

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

 

The open letter is also available here on the International Press Institute website.

 

Coronavirus coverage

There is a global study showing a majority of the public around the world get their information about coronavirus from mainstream media – yet journalists are their least trusted source. Please see this report in the UK Press Gazette and here for more on coronavirus coverage in the UK.
The AEJ International site has interesting links to EU coverage of the coronavirus story on its home page.

 

How personal data could contribute to a cure

 

EU response to Covid 19 – every government for itself

 

Virus cartoons

 

Five decisions the EU should make

 

Brexit

Deal
The UK and the European Union have approved an agreement on a trade deal after Brexit. The last-minute deal allows Britain to continue trading with the EU and may avoid the massive disruption to the economy and people’s lives expected if there had been no deal. Exactly how the deal affects business, the economy and individuals will only become clearer with time with constantly updated reporting available here:

Associated Press (AP) - https://apnews.com/hub/brexit

Financial Times(FT) - https://www.ft.com/brexit

The Guardian -https://www.theguardian.com/politics/eu-referendum

BBC - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/politics/uk_leaves_the_eu

 

Details of the deal are here and for some early analysis please see:

FT - https://www.ft.com/content/34dd4cbe-33ef-32f8-9aa2-904339e46bf0

AP - https://apnews.com/article/brexit-europe-global-trade-europe-e0e9914361f0f8975b7f49a834497c5d

Council on Foreign Relations (U.S. based) - https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/whats-eu-uk-brexit-deal

 

For questions about the deal itself and its impact please see:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/55252388

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-55261711

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson unsurprisingly heralded the Christmas Eve deal as delivering on Brexit by taking back control of UK laws and destiny. He said the deal will protect jobs, allow UK goods to be sold without tariffs and quotas in the EU market, and allow companies to do even more business with Europe. From January 1, the UK will be outside the European customs union and single market, Johnson said, and British laws will be made solely by the British parliament, interpreted by UK judges sitting in UK courts, and no longer subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – all demands of ardent Brexiteers. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the deal was fair and balanced and Brussels would "continue cooperating with the UK in all areas of mutual interest" such as climate change, transport and security. She said agreement on the highly contentious but symbolic issue of fishing rights guaranteed 5½ years of "full predictability for our fishing communities".

Rejoining the EU?
Even as the ink dries on the Brexit trade deal and at least early problems with it surface, there are of course questions about Britain’s future relationship with the EU – including the possibility of rejoining.  AEJ member Nick Hopkinson predicts future British governments will eventually seek closer relations again and may even want to rejoin. The former director of Wilton Park, the international policy forum, and a long-time supporter of close relations with the EU, Hopkinson examines how and when that might be in this article in The New European.

Brexit – January 2020

The United Kingdom officially left the European Union at midnight Central European Time on January 31, 2020. For a range of news coverage and what it meant please see these links:

https://apnews.com/e48bf51838ced94e2d92adba189b4944

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-51333314

https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/10858199/brexit-news-uk-live-eu-latest/

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2020/feb/01/brexit-britain-wakes-up-to-uncertain-future-after-uk-leaves-eu-live-news-and-updates

https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/brexit/what-happens-after-brexit-day-uk-transition-period-when-leaving-eu-date-explained-1373410

https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/brexit-day-uk-leaves-eu-gbr-intl/index.html

https://www.foxnews.com/category/world/world-regions/europe/brexit

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/brexit-uk-officially-leaves-european-union-200131211418625.html

https://www.gov.uk/transition

https://www.gov.uk/staying-uk-eu-citizen

The course of Brexit was set when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson won his bet on the future of Britain in a snap election on December 12 2019. Voters woke up on Friday the 13th December 2019 to a thumping Conservative majority, the resignations of both main opposition party leaders – Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Liberal Democrats’ Jo Swinson, and a resurgent Scottish National Party seeking the independence of Scotland. Please also see here for:
Election result numbers

And here for how Johnson’s Conservatives won:
https://www.ft.com/content/ab3692b0-2317-11ea-92da-f0c92e957a96

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/how-boris-johnson-became-britain-s-most-powerful-prime-minister-since-tony-blair-1.4120281

See here for more Brexit news

 


 

 

Jonathan Fryer

1950-2021


It is with great sadness we note the death of Jonathan Fryer, long-time AEJ UK member, journalist, broadcaster, author and active Liberal Democrat. Jonathan died peacefully at an east London hospice on April 16 after being diagnosed with a terminal condition less than a month earlier. With the Liberal Democrats he was most recently chair of the party’s Federal International Relations Committee and a major contributor to its international work for many years. As a journalist he worked for Reuters and the BBC World Service as well as writing for The Guardian and other publications and broadcasters. As a colleague and friend to many in the AEJ and others in multiple other fields he will be greatly missed.
Please see here for more.


Lunchtime meetings

Covid-19 Impact
The AEJ UK hopes to resume regular in person lunchtime meetings at Regent’s University after the summer break depending on circumstances related to the Covid pandemic. Regent’s University – our regular host - has suspended many physical meetings at their campus including those with the AEJ.
AEJ UK meetings usually start at 12:30
and are open to journalists, academics and Europe specialists and guests. Pre-registration is necessary by email to cas.jenkins@gmail.com. A fee of £25 is charged to cover the cost of refreshments - £10 for under-25s and free admission may be extended to students on a discretionary basis.


Reports on meetings are usually available on this website.
For a list of our recent lunchtime guests see Events.
 
AEJ UK meetings were kindly hosted at Europe House, the London home of the EU Commission and European Parliament, for many years. Please see their UK website for EU events and information.


Recent AEJ UK guests

Germany post-Merkel
The era of Angela Merkel and “Germany first” may soon change to older, more Euro-centric policies predicts leading German columnist Alan Posener. The former senior editor and now
columnist at Die Welt newspaper spoke to an AEJ UK meeting on May 18 about the outlook for “Germany after Angela Merkel”. After 16 years in power Mrs Merkel will stand down as  Chancellor of Germany at September’s elections. In his iconoclastic assessment, Posener says that despite her reputation as a rock of political stability and a committed European, Angela Merkel took a ‘Germany-first’ approach to important policy decisions, leaving deep divisions within German society and antagonizing many of Germany’s neighbours. Please see here for an edited text of his remarks and here for an audio record of the meeting.

Life after Brexit
Adjustment, adaptation, acceptance: three words from the EU's ambassador to the United Kingdom sum up the challenges facing Brexit Britain. João Vale de Almeida told the AEJ UK on April 26 that all three are needed to meet the opportunities and challenges of future relations between the EU and the UK. By contrast, the ambassador has needed stoicism and patience during his first 15 turbulent months in office since taking up his post on February 1 2020, the first full day of Brexit after the UK's departure from the European Union. Even his title is in dispute as the UK government has so far refused to grant him the same diplomatic status as it gives to envoys of nation states.  In those 15 months, tensions have flared between London and Brussels over the Brexit agreement's Northern Ireland Protocol, its effects on trade between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, fishing rights, and over the supply of Covid 19 vaccines between manufacturing sites in the UK and the EU. João Vale de Almeida brings a wealth of diplomatic experience to his role at this crucial time in UK-EU relations. He has occupied a succession of senior EU posts since joining the European Commission in 1982 in Lisbon, including EU ambassador to the UN and to the USA, director general of the EU's External Action Service, and head of the EU Commission president’s office when fellow Portuguese national Jose Manuel Barroso was president. For more on his presentation please see this report from former FT economics editor Peter Norman and here for an audio record.

Global Britain
What is the future for Britain post Brexit? That’s the question Ed Balls would like the UK to debate, publicly and sensibly. The former Labour Chancellor argues that it needs to steer a middle course, truly accepting that Britain has left the EU and making the right choices to prosper domestically and internationally. And he says failure to get Global Britain right could endanger the very existence of a “United Kingdom”. Speaking at the AEJ UK on March 26, the former politician – and celebrity dancer, champion cook, and documentary maker – warned that the “Global Britain” slogan poses major challenges for the UK’s two main political parties and their leaders who will have to “start building an answer about what a modern forward looking Global Britain looks like outside the EU”. Now professor of political economy at King’s College London and a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, Balls co-authored “Finding Global Britain”, a vision of how to turn what was a Brexiteer slogan into policies for “a pragmatic but ambitiously outward-looking and progressive country”. The Harvard University paper focused on five themes:  trade policy, regulation, migration, domestic inequalities, and the need for a new national narrative. At the AEJ, Balls detailed some of the challenges and opportunities inherent in that. For more please see this report by Peter Norman, AEJ meetings secretary and former economics editor of the Financial Times, and click here for an audio record.

Russian politics in election year
As Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny remained in jail, the AEJ UK linked to Moscow live to speak with Dr. Ekaterina Schulmann, Moscow-based political scientist and associate fellow at the Chatham House Russia and Eurasia Program. The meeting on February 8 2021 came against the background of Navalny’s tumultuous return to Russia after a failed attempt by Russian secret security agents to assassinate him with a Novichok nerve agent, sparking a Russia-wide wave of anti-government protests echoing those still going on in neighbouring Belarus. Dr. Schulmann noted that after 22 years in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin this year faces enormous political challenges as the Russian political system enters a turbulent transition phase. Parliamentary elections due in autumn 2021 and a presidential election due in 2024 come amid increasing expectations of change among younger generations of Russians. She said the political system has to renew itself and that will not be easy with the risk for the ruling elite not so much from a popular uprising but from conflicts within itself in reaction to popular discontent.  Please see here for a report on the meeting from Charles Jenkins, AEJ secretary and former
 Europe editor/director western Europe at the Economist Intelligence Unit and this audio record.

See here for more AEJ UK guest speakers


AEJ Media Freedom Project

The AEJ works to protect freedom of expression and independent journalism by bringing issues to the attention of governments and advising inter-governmental organisations on behalf of our members. The AEJ’s Media Freedom Representative and Vice President is William Horsley, a former BBC foreign correspondent and the current chairman of the UK section.
Since the 
AEJ Media Freedom Survey in 2007 (Goodbye to Freedom?), the AEJ has published Europe-wide surveys and reports that reveal the erosion of press freedom through physical assaults, wrongful imprisonment, oppressive laws, and unacceptable political and commercial pressures.
The AEJ is an observer at the 
Council of Europe. Since 2 April 2015, it has been one of the eight partners in the Council’s online platform for early warning of and rapid response to attacks on the media. For more information, see Media Freedom.
The AEJ actively supports the ongoing efforts of UNESCO, the UN Agency with a mandate to safeguard media freedom, to implement the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The AEJ Media Freedom Representative authored the OSCE’s Safety of Journalists Guidebook setting out the obligations of participating states to protect the security of journalists, including those using the Internet.
Our campaigns and activities can also be tracked on the
Media Freedom and News pages of the international AEJ website, www.aej.org


AEJ and the Council of Europe

The AEJ takes part in the policy work of the Council of Europe (CoE) on key issues of media freedom as a participant in the steering committee on Media and Information Society and the Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists. It works on behalf of its members across Europe to hold the CoE and its 47 member states to their commitments on media freedom and freedom of expression.

To read further, please go to Media Freedom.


Media visits to the European Parliament

The EP’s London Office has a small budget to offset some of the travel and hotel costs incurred by journalists when visiting the European Parliament. Only a limited number can be helped in this way, so you must first be invited by the UK Office before seeking reimbursement (see EP website).

 


Briefings

A selection of AEJ-related writings and activities

AEJ member Rick Thompson’s book Park Life has been published – a diary in praise of urban parks, detailing a year of the wildlife in his local park by the Avon and tangential thoughts about legends, folklore, science, climate change, and the health benefits of regular contact with nature.

AEJ member Charles Jenkins, former Western Europe editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit, blogs on Europe at https://eupriorities.ideasoneurope.eu/

Firdevs Robinson’s writing is now accessible on FirdevsTalkTurkey.com

William Horsley blogs on the Centre for Freedom of the Media website.

 

 

News

A turning point for media freedom in Europe?

A major conference of European media ministers has highlighted the actions of European governments accused of persecuting journalists. Council of Europe ministers responsible for media called on the Council’s top decision-making body to implement comprehensive plans for preventing, investigating and sanctioning threats against journalists’ safety in the final declaration of their meetings in Cyprus on June 10 and 11. But while the ministerial conference on Media and Democracy shone a rare spotlight on European governments’ actions affecting media freedom, William Horsley, AEJ media freedom representative, asks if it really will mark a turning-point for better protections for journalism and the safety of journalists? Even as the first such major conference in 8 years ended, Russia disrupted the European show of unity as it objected to a key Council of Europe mechanism for protecting media freedom, the CoE Platform for the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists. The Russian delegation declared its opposition to the Platform’s work in an “interpretive statement” and also expressed its wider disagreement with significant parts of the Council of Europe’s strategy for reversing the decline in the safety of journalists. For more please see this report from William Horsley and here for the conference documents.

 

BBC future

The BBC faces searching questions about its management and its future in the wake of an independent report severely critical of how it handled its scoop interview with Princess Diana over 25 years ago. The report on May 20 2021 by retired judge Lord John Dyson found that journalist Martin Bashir used deceitful practices – faked documents designed to convince Princess Diana to grant the blockbuster interview in 1995 in which she spoke candidly about the breakdown of her marriage to Prince Charles, heir to the throne. The report also said BBC management failed to follow its own protocols before the interview, was “woefully ineffective” in its subsequent investigations, and asked if a series of BBC management actions following the interview constituted a cover-up. The BBC has apologized, says it has better procedures now, and has launched an internal review of its editorial policies. It has not specified how it will deal with management failures in the handling of the issues. Arguably the world’s most trusted news source, the BBC now faces a series of questions about its actions and opportunistic calls for changes that could endanger its editorial independence and  possibly threaten its very existence. Journalistic media like the UK Press Gazette and organizations such as the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) have rallied to defend the BBC’s journalists but they have also noted difficult questions still to be answered. The BBC was already under pressure about its cuts to local news across the UK and a looming government review of funding and governance. So unsurprisingly, long-time critics in Fleet Street tabloids – with their own long history of questionable practice – and Boris Johnson’s government and MPs were lining up to have their say.

 

Belarus faces international outrage over plane arrest

The forced landing of a Ryanair passenger jet and arrest of a prominent opposition journalist in Belarus on May 23 sparked international outrage and condemnation.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary described the action as “state sponsored hijacking”. AEJ Media Freedom Representative William Horsley reports here on the British and international condemnation - British foreign secretary Dominic Raab told British carriers not to fly through Belarusian airspace and suspended operations to the UK by the Belarusian airline Belavia. The European Union followed suit along with further sanctions. The dramatic

developments unfolded like an international thriller novel.

Belarus state media said President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a fighter jet scrambled and the country’s air traffic control to force the passenger plane to land in Minsk as it flew briefly in Belarusian airspace on a flight from Athens to Vilnius in Lithuania. Belarus claimed there was a bomb threat and on the ground arrested journalist Roman Protasevich, co-founder and former editor of Nexta, a channel of online messaging app Telegram. They also arrested his girlfriend and three other people. The EU faces difficulty in taking effective action and both Europe and Russia in particular will need to examine just why Lukashenko took such action and its impact. For more on the ongoing struggle in Belarus please see here.

 

Council of Europe warns of democratic backsliding

The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić, has issued a stark warning that the increase in violence against journalists demonstrates “a worrying degree of democratic backsliding” and endangers Europe’s “democratic culture”. AEJ media freedom representative and AEJ UK chairman William Horsley has this report.

 

World Press Freedom Day 2021

Marking World Press Freedom Day 2021 on May 3, the secretarys general of both the United Nations and the Council of Europe called for urgent action to stop threats to media freedom. AEJ UK chairman and AEJ international media freedom representative William Horsley has this commentary - The Media Freedom Fightback Gets Stronger. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the coronavirus pandemic and its severe impact on media revenues could lead to a “media extinction event”. The Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić expressed concern about attacks on journalists and limitations to press freedom in many parts of Europe in a joint statement with Germany’s federal minister of justice and consumer protection, Christine Lambrecht, representing the German presidency of the Council of Europe’s committee of ministers. Earlier Ms. Pejčinović Burić urged European governments to show stronger political will to protect journalists and independent journalism as she marked the release of the its annual report on media freedom of the Council of Europe Platform for the protection and safety of journalists. AEJ UK chairman and AEJ international media freedom representative William Horsley contributed a personal message of support for editor and journalist Maria Ressa in the Philippines as part of an innovative and unprecedented global solidarity campaign led by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the #HoldTheLine coalition. Their website features hundreds of videos from prominent supporters around the world - with a call for public contributions - that will stream on a continuous loop until all charges are dropped against Ressa and the media outlet Rappler she founded. Ressa faces a possible lifetime in prison in the Philippines. She was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2018 and won this year’s UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. This year marks exactly 30 years since the landmark “Windhoek Declaration” when African journalists set out three key demands – for media freedom, media independence and media pluralism - that laid the foundation for a United Nations global campaign proclaiming the date as World Press Freedom Day. Then, South Africa’s apartheid regime was crumbling and the Cold War was becoming history in Europe. This year, World Press Freedom Day is hosted in Namibia and key themes include the survival of independent and local media, enforcing the responsibilities of internet giants, and public media literacy in the face of the “disinfodemic” and persecution of journalists through anti-media “fake news” laws.

 

AEJ Hungary defends media independence

The AEJ Hungarian Section marked World Press Freedom Day with a broadside against the government’s attempts to stifle media independence and a fresh call for the European Union to use stronger means to counteract the hostile propaganda of Hungary’s pro-government media.

 

Media Freedom Report 2021
The 2021 annual report on media freedom by the Council of Europe platform for the protection and safety of journalists notes a strong rise in reports of violence against journalists as well as censorship and reprisals for questioning government policies. At the same time, quality media face serious economic challenges and many journalists have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The report says extraordinary damage was inflicted on free and independent journalism in 2020 as governments across Europe adopted emergency laws and regulations in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that also imposed extraordinary restrictions on journalists’ activities. It says these represent arbitrary interferences in the legitimate work of journalists and news organisations and place excessive limitations on the fundamental rights of people across Europe to enjoy access to uncensored information freely and from diverse sources. The Council of Europe platform for the protection and safety of journalists joins the AEJ and 13 other journalistic and NGO partner organisations in a Europe-wide “rapid response mechanism” to issue real-time online media freedom alerts. The AEJ, Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists and the International Press Institute form the core editorial team for the report which is the collective work of all 14 partner organisations. Please see here for the full report and here for the press conference marking the launch.

 

Hungarian media attack on Austrian journalist

The Council of Europe Platform for the protection and safety of journalists has followed the AEJ and other media freedom groups in condemning the Hungarian government for a serious attack on media freedom. The COE Platform has issued an alert about a Hungarian state television broadcast which attacked an Austrian journalist for asking "provocative questions" and questioning her integrity and professionalism. The attack on prime time news prompted a protest from Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and a further attack in reply on social media by his Hungarian counterpart. The COE action is one of several recent alerts related to malicious verbal attacks and threats including ones in Bulgaria and Slovenia. Please see the AEJ International website for more.

 

Shocking murder of Athens journalist

The killing of prominent Greek crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz in Athens on April 9 highlights fears that investigative journalists in Europe face growingly more dangerous conditions because of increased hostility to the media from both state and non-state actors. The AEJ’s media freedom representative and AEJ UK chairman, William Horsley, called on the Greek authorities to “conduct an urgent, independent and effective investigation and bring the killers of Giorgos Karaivaz to justice to prevent a further erosion of public trust." Karaivaz was a veteran of crime reporting who had worked for various Greek newspapers and broadcasters. For more please see this alert on the Council of Europe platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and the AEJ International website.

 

Justice for Daphne?

There may be a possible glimmer of hope for justice in the killing of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. One of three previously accused men, Vincent Muscat – believed to have been the hitman - has been sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty in a plea bargain deal. On the same day, Feb.23 2021, police arrested three new suspects - two of them have been charged with supplying the car bomb in Caruana Galizia’s assassination in October 2017. Her son Matthew told the AEJ: “What has happened is a step from no to partial justice. The homicide squad has done a good job, but there are severe problems with Malta’s capacity to fight corruption.” Police claimed all suspects in the case have now been arrested but it’s widely suspected that Caruana Galizia’s assassination involved both organized crime and members of Malta’s elite. Her blog uncovering political corruption in Malta earned her a reputation as a one-woman WikiLeaks. And her murder mired Malta’s ruling Labour party in political scandal. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat resigned in 2019 over allegations that members of his administration had tried to sabotage the police investigation. AEJ President Saia Tsaousidou described the new arrests as “half-good news, but not more than that.”

The International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ-EFJ) welcomed Muscat’s guilty plea and urged Malta’s authorities to continue to pursue others involved in her murder. The AEJ has worked consistently with other media freedom organizations to focus attention on the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia and AEJ media freedom representative William Horsley was instrumental in the publication of the last interview with her.

 

CIA confirms Saudi prince approved assassination
The United States has released a Central Intelligence Agency report saying Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Sultan approved the assassination of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The new U.S. President Joe Biden stopped short of imposing sanctions on the prince but did announce measures against other key Saudis involved in the brutal killing. The report’s release in early 2021 signals a recalibration of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia which rejected the report. The Crown Prince - profiled in this BBC Radio 4 program, de facto ruler of the country, and son and heir apparent to the king - has always denied a role in the murder. Jamal Khashoggi disappeared inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct.2 2018, was killed, and his body cut up. He was one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent journalists, once an advisor to the country’s intelligence chief, but left in 2017 to the USA where he wrote a regular column for The Washington Post in which he criticised the direction of his country under Crown Prince Mohamed. Khashoggi’s murder turned a spotlight on the Saudi regime’s pivotal role in a number of key issues – the Yemen civil war, western arms sales to the Saudis, international terrorism, its actions as one of two key Western allies in the Middle East, and its financing and trade particularly in relation to the USA and western European countries. At the time the Association of European Journalists International joined the Journalist Support Committee (JSC) to call for justice and a full investigation into Khashoggi’s death. The AEJ and JSC called for disclosure of all information in the Turkish investigation and for a thorough, independent review of the human rights record of the Saudi authorities. They joined other journalist and human rights groups in their alarm as Saudi activists remain in jail.

AEJ condemns attack on Kosovo investigative journalist
The AEJ and other media freedom groups have condemned a targeted assault on investigative journalist Visar Duriqi in Kosovo. He was hospitalised with serious head and face injuries after the late-night ambush attack near his home. Duriqi had just made a TV appearance in which he accused public officials of corruption and abuse of their positions. The European Union’s office in the capital, Pristina, condemned the attack and declared that journalists must be allowed to carry out their work freely and safely.

Big Tech, media freedom, and money
The world’s tech information giants remain in the spotlight as debate rages across the world over media freedom and money. Australia has passed the world’s first law aimed at making Google and Facebook pay news publishers for content on their platforms. It follows a major struggle with the tech giants in which Google threatened to pull its search engine from the entire country and Facebook actually did block Australians from viewing or sharing news. The law passed with amendments after tough negotiations and mixed consequences from the Facebook ban. Facebook and Google’s fight in Australia were not their first over payment for news and Australia is far from their largest market but the proposed law is seen as a potential global test case for how governments regulate big tech firms. Both Facebook and Google resisted the Australian plan because negotiating business deals would be subject to national rules and they would have less control over how much they would have to pay – but they took different approaches in their fight.
Across the Pacific in the USA there were serious questions about the power of digital media giants and free speech after Twitter and Facebook shut down U.S. President Donald Trump’s accounts. Honorary AEJ member and veteran American journalist and columnist Llewellyn King examines issues of media freedom and free speech in the wake of actions by the tech giants. They shut down Trump’s accounts after he encouraged protests that turned violent at the Capitol building in his last days in office. What if these companies get politically activated in the future, King asks, while acknowledging that ex-President Trump deserved censure and the digital companies’ actions may not be wrong at a time of crisis. Quoting journalist and essayist H.L. Mencken in 1940 - “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one” - King says the current exercise of censor authority should alarm all free-speech advocates and is power that exceeds anything ever seen in media. For more on his call for a re-examination of current law and a larger discussion on all the issues of free speech on social media please see his column in the White House Chronicle and InsideSources.

AEJ joins protests against jailing of Navalny

The AEJ notes growing concerns about the health of jailed Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny. A report by AEJ secretary general Edward Steen follows strong protests from the AEJ against the jailing of Navalny as well as attacks on journalists covering protests in his support. The AEJ has joined the Committee to Protect Journalists, Article 19 and Reporters Sans Frontieres in recording and protesting against a record wave of arrests, attacks and criminal cases against journalists. The London-based Justice for  Journalists organisation reported nearly 400 attacks on Russian media workers and their families in the last few weeks of January. The Council of Europe has issued a formal media freedom alert on the Europe-wide platform for the safety of journalists. At the time former AEJ president Otmar Lahodynsky said the sentencing of Navalny for 3½ years in a penal colony was “a grotesque infringement of elementary human rights.” Lahodynsky said there had been no investigation into the poison-attack on Navalny in August 2020 and called for sanctions by the EU. And the man who helped evacuate Navalny from Russia says his sentencing “suggests Russia under Vladimir Putin is on an unstoppable shift back to the old authoritarian ways of the Soviet Union” – in a guest commentary on the AEJ International website. Jaka Bizilj is the founder of the Cinema for Peace Initiative and flew with Navalny to Berlin in a private plane on August 22 2020 at the request of Pussy Riot in a humanitarian gesture supported by the German government and the Presidents of France and Finland.

 

Hungary’s Klubrádió in jeopardy

The AEJ Hungary has called for Europe-wide support for Klubrádió, one of the last independent radio stations in Hungary. A Hungarian court has confirmed a decision by the government-controlled Media Council to deny Klubrádió’s broadcasting license from February 15 although the station still plans to broadcast on the internet at https://www.klubradio.hu/

The AEJ Hungary said the government’s intention was to reduce voices and programs independent and critical of the government less than a year before planned elections and called for solidarity and support as the station appealed to Hungary’s Supreme Court. The president of

Klubrádió described the lower court decision as “shameful” and the removal of its licence as “illegal”.

 

Will Europe defend journalists at risk today? 

As journalists in Turkey face continuing pressure from the government many marked the anniversary of the murder of renowned Turkish investigative journalist Ugur Mumcu. Killed in a car bomb explosion on 24 January 1993, he defined journalism as the medium that “talks about struggles in all areas of life”. AEJ UK chairman and international media freedom representative William Horsley writes that those words still ring true today as the struggle for survival of independent media across the world has grown more acute and many political leaders want to transform the role of the media from that of a public watchdog that holds power to account into propaganda weapons for their own advantage. The AEJ joined a mission to Turkey with 10 other international media freedom, journalism and human rights groups  in October to warn of a growing crisis for freedom of expression in Turkey.

 

Belarus standoff
The Association of European Journalists has called for the release of Belarusian journalist Andrei Aliaksandrau and eight others held in jail in connection with their reporting of public protests against the government. Aliaksandrau, detained since January 12 2021, is a long-time associate of the AEJ, was a deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists from 2009 to 2012, and is the founder and chief editor of the news website Belarus Journal. In November 2020 the Belarus Association of Journalists was awarded the prestigious Media Freedom Award from the Global Media Freedom Coalition, now made up of over 40 countries, that was established in 2019 by the UK and Canada. The award citation recognised the BAJ for its commitment to covering human rights and election fraud in the face of violence and threats. The AEJ previously called for a strong, concerted international response against violent suppression of free media in Belarus, saying on September 3 that the Belarusian authorities’ violent suppression of free media, targeted attacks against journalists, and the denial of accreditations and deportations of large numbers of journalists were aimed at preventing journalists from reporting on legitimate protests against alleged election fraud and other government abuses.

Hundreds of journalists have been arrested in Belarus in a harsh crackdown by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko on mass protests that have continued weekly for five months against August elections widely considered as rigged. The European Union has not recognised the legality of the elections, saying they were “not free and fair” and an investigation supported by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found massive and systemic violations of basic rights before and after the poll. On January 18 the International Ice Hockey Federation stripped Belarus of its right to co-host this year’s world championships, a slap to avid hockey fan Lukashenko. For some time Lukashenko has been stuck in an ongoing power standoff with opposition protesters. His state media said on December 31 he will hold a referendum on his suggested constitutional reforms and has called a congress of his supporters in February. At the same time reports surfaced that neighbouring Russia plans to launch a pro-Russia party in the Belarus borderland between it and the EU. Russia has kept a low profile amid much reporting about its plans – ranging from speculation about losing patience with Lukashenko through opposition hopes for support from new U.S. President Joe Biden, along with earlier analysis of Vladimir Putin’s options from the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, the Washington Post-owned Foreign Policy, and even from inside Russia in the Moscow-based English language Moscow Times.

Please see more on Belarus.

 

Journalism in the age of Covid
There has been concern for most of the last year about growing pressures on journalists and politicians of all stripes using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to control reporting and suppress information. For an update on this – reported here on the AEJ UK website earlier this year – please see this update and round up from Brussels Morning.

Quicker justice for journalists
The AEJ has formally endorsed an authoritative legal report calling for an international task force to ensure effective investigations into violent attacks and abuses against journalists. The report by 15 leading international lawyers calls for creation of a new International Investigative Task Force to ensure effective investigations into violent attacks and abuses against journalists. It was launched on November 25 by the independent High Level Legal Panel supporting the Global Media Freedom Coalition made up of some 40 UN member states. The task force of forensic and legal experts is intended to act with strong political backing with a mandate to strengthen existing UN mechanisms to bring to justice perpetrators of acts such as the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb attack in 2017, and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

How journalists handle political pressure and threats
AEJ UK chairman William Horsley has addressed the Council of Europe committee on media and information society about the extraordinary experiences, persecution and courageous work of 20 frontline journalists across Europe detailed in a new book he has co-authored. Along with co-author Marilyn Clark, associate professor of psychology at the University of Malta, the writers hope to provide a new rationale and impetus for protecting journalists more effectively from physical and legal attacks, exclusion and online harassment, and the impact of climates of impunity when journalists are attacked or murdered. The book “A Mission to Inform: Journalists at risk speak out” was launched on October 14 coinciding with the third anniversary of the death of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. It includes the last interview she gave, available here – only 10 days before she was killed while reporting on corruption issues. On the anniversary of her death on October 16 2017, the AEJ added its voice to 19 other organisations supporting journalists, international free expression, anti-corruption, and civic participation in demanding an end to impunity from prosecution for the attack.
The new book is based on “in-depth interviews with 20 journalists from 18 different countries selected for their experience and skill in reporting in the public interest and exposing injustice and abuses. Each … shared their insights into the realities of doing cutting-edge journalism to bring the truth to light; they spoke about their first-hand experience of threats, hostility and intimidation, surveillance and cyberattacks, and about self-censorship, resilience and coping strategies, as well as about what they portray as routine failures by state authorities to give journalists the protection they need to fulfil their public watchdog role.” It is published by the Council of Europe and the foreword by the COE’s Director General of Human Rights and Rule of Law notes that journalists across member states face various forms of pressure and intimidation meant to silence and hinder their ‘mission to inform’ - “worrying given that democratic societies can only function if media actors can report on matters of public interest without interference and without fear”.  The COE notes that the book is a follow up to a study in 2017 involving nearly 1000 questionnaires answered by journalists which revealed grave statistics concerning the risks they faced. “A Mission to Inform: Journalists at risk speak out” is aimed at analysing how journalists responded to pressures exerted on them and what solutions they found to overcome fear and continue being able to fulfil their public watchdog mission.

Fake news updates
Two key characters in the ongoing fake news saga of the last few years now face forms of justice. In the UK, Alexander Nix the former head of Cambridge Analytica has been banned from running any limited liability company for seven years. And in the USA, right-wing promoter and former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon has been charged with fraud. The Cambridge Analytica story first looked like a plotline straight out of the U.S. TV series Homeland – allegations of an illegal data grab used to manipulate national votes in both the U.S. presidential election and the UK referendum on leaving the European Union. But it was life once again imitating art – sparked by an investigative report published in mid-March 2018 by The Observer newspaper and shared with the UK’s Channel 4 television and the New York Times. For more please see here.

 

 

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About the AEJ
The AEJ is an independent network of journalists, writers and specialists active across Europe, a 
Europe wide network of national sections with the goal of advancing knowledge and debate on European affairs and upholding media freedom. In the UK we host regular meetings for journalists providing a forum for open-minded exchanges with public figures of all backgrounds to promote informed debate on European and international affairs. Our lunchtime meetings are open to bona fide journalists and visiting members of other AEJ sections; an entry fee must be paid to cover the costs of food and drink and pre-registration is essential. Journalists, writers and specialists in European affairs may also apply to join the Association of European Journalists – please see here for more about the benefits of membership or contact the AEJ UK Secretary.
We are independent of any institutional or political group and are recognised by the Council of Europe, the OSCE and UNESCO.

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