By Theo Clarke, CEO of Coalition for Global Prosperity
In the last 15 years, over 1,000 professional journalists have been killed for doing their job around the world. Think about these figures. No, more importantly, think about the people behind them. What they stand for. Their fates, and that of their loved ones. Already in 2019, according to the barometer on the front page of the Reporters Sans Frontieres website, 30 journalists have been killed and 231 imprisoned.
In Britain, we have long championed a free press. Now, we must not only protect the Fourth Estate at home, we must be its champion as Britain supports development and security overseas.
The term ‘the Fourth Estate’ is often used to describe the function of media in democratic societies. It is attributed to the man considered to be the founding father of modern-day conservatism, Edmund Burke. It was in the House of Commons in 1787, as journalists began to report on proceedings from within the UK Parliament, and as the ideas of the Enlightenment spread across Europe, that Burke described journalists gathered the ‘Fourth Estate’.
It was the job of the Fourth Estate, he proclaimed, to keep a check on the other estates of the realm: the clergy, the nobility and the commoner. Since, the influence of the pen and the print press has evolved to shape the sphere of public debate and political scrutiny, so much so that is hard to imagine life without it in Britain.
But media freedoms are liberties not definitively secured but constantly sought after. Because, despite enjoying a healthy, plural media environment in the UK, according to Freedom House, freedom of the media has deteriorated around the world over the past decade. The tragic murder of journalist Lyra McKee by dissident republicans in Northern Ireland earlier this year shows that attacks on media freedom are as real in Britain as anywhere else in the world, despite our strong traditions.
In Britain, we have well-established freedoms for reporting; a cherished public service broadcaster in the BBC, revered the world over; and legal protections for media ownership. We also have some of the world’s best journalists operating for our newspapers and broadcasters from some of the most precarious and unpredictable places on earth. We owe it to them, and to their colleagues around the world, to promote the media freedoms we expect in Britain.
In 2019, we have seen the British Government take important steps in this regard. In July, the UK Government, in partnership with the Canadian Government, hosted the first Global Conference for Media Freedom. Delegations from over 100 countries, including 60 ministers and more than 1,500 journalists, academics and campaigners, met in London. Tragic stories were shared of journalists imprisoned and killed in the line of reporting. And, crucially, additional measures agreed, including the signing of a new Global Pledge on Media Freedom. The Conference was a very important demonstration of global leadership by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), harnessing diplomatic influence and building international capacity.
Additionally, the Department for International Development (DfID) has pledged £27 million this year to promote and advance media freedoms in developing countries. I’m proud that this funding is helping to develop sustainable, independent media in Bangladesh, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia. It builds on DfID’s work to protect media freedom in developing countries, which has already helped to give 283.5 million people in 15 fragile, poor and conflict affected countries access to TV, radio, and online outlets, whilst supporting 135 stations to strengthen their content to help citizens understand their rights and hold government and other power holders to account.
This is not just a fight for journalists, editors and media proprietors. It is a fight for all of us who want to advance democracy, stability, security and development overseas. Without a free media, our other efforts will be to limited effect. And that’s why it is so important that the UK Government builds on the agenda created in London, and drives it forward.
Theo Clarke is the CEO of Coalition for Global Prosperity.
Join BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner and award-winning war photographer Paul Conroy at ‘Defending Media Freedom across the World’, a fringe hosted by the Coalition for Global Prosperity and BBC Media Action at Conservative Party conference.
‘Defending Media Freedom across the World’
Time & Date: 16.00-17.30 on Monday 30th September
Location: Victoria Suite, Midland Hotel