UK PEN centres note with great concern the recent blacklisting of the British group of investigative journalists whose work focuses on the foreign, military and intelligence policies of the United Kingdom, Declassified UK, by the United Kingdom Government Ministry of Defence, and the MoD’s decision to exclude Declassified UK from MoD comment, in apparent retaliation for the group’s previous reporting on the war in Yemen.September 14, 2020
On August 25, Phil Miller, a journalist at Declassified UK, emailed MoD spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Richard Wade seeking a statement following the arrest of serving soldier Lance Corporal Ahmed Al-Batati, after the latter held a one-man protest outside Downing Street against the UK’s continued support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
Instead of a statement in response, Mr Miller received a reply from Lt. Col. Wade asking “what sort of angle have you taken on the war in Yemen” shortly followed by an intimation that the MoD would not be offering a statement or comment. Mr Miller then asked why the Daily Telegraph had been provided with a comment on the same matter, but he had not, only to receive the response that “We no longer deal with your publication”. No further explanation was provided to Mr Miller or Declassified UK’s editor, Mark Curtis.
“Ministers speak a lot about press freedom and the importance of holding governments to account. But when Declassified’s work attempts to do precisely this, a public body tells us it won’t provide us with information. This is impeding critical, independent journalism.”
“We think our investigative work has been ground-breaking in informing the public about numerous government policies which other media have not covered. We’ve no doubt this is the reason the MOD is blacklisting Declassified. It should simply treat us the same way as any other professional media organisation”.Mark Curtis, Editor, Declassified UK
We note that the Council of Europe has issued a Media Freedom Alert with respect to this matter, and the International Press Institute, a global organisation dedicated to the promotion and protection of press freedom, has seen fit to write to MoD and the Secretary of State for Defence to express its concern and seek clarification regarding the conduct of the MoD.
We are particularly concerned that this latest action by the United Kingdom comes on the heels of another media freedom alert issued by the Council of Europe citing the United Kingdom as the source of a state threat against a chilling effect on media, when OpenDemocracy journalist James Cusick was banned from asking questions at the UK government’s daily COVID-19 press briefings after reporting on serious flaws in the UK COVID-19 testing regime.
The United Kingdom joins Russia and Turkey on the list of states which currently have Council of Europe media freedom alerts outstanding against them. We note with distress that a country with a proud tradition in matters of media freedom should be taking a selective approach to this important right. These issues have arisen under the watch of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. While he has seen fit to highlight the impact that the recent actions of Extinction Rebellion have on restricting the public’s right to access journalism, the UK Government remains silent on the Declassified UK matter, and has not responded to the Council of Europe media freedom alert regarding James Cusick.
The undersigned PEN centres join the International Press Institute in hoping that the MoD press office will clarify whether Declassified UK has been placed on a list of media barred from receiving comment and, if so, on what grounds. We also request that the UK Government provide assurances that it will not blacklist any publications or journalists on the grounds of being “off-message” or critical of the government.
We stand with Phil Miller and the many other journalists in the United Kingdom who are endeavouring to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, including when attempting to hold the government to account.