To the left of the altar of St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street is a tableau, a commemoration of journalists who have suffered in the exercise of their duty. That might sound a somewhat portentous way of describing the trade but it has never been more vital or more dangerous. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 34 have been killed so far in 2018 in retaliation for their work, double the previous year.
The montage in the church remembers the courage of journalists over many years. Some murders dominate the headlines, such as that of the Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down in 2006 for revealing too much about the war in Chechnya, or most recently the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Some cases are less high profile. For more than a year an Algerian, Said Chitour, was detained without trial on so-called “espionage” charges. His “crime” was to have worked with visiting western news organisations, who saw him as a dedicated colleague. The BBC and others worked hard behind the scenes to get him out. He was finally released a month ago, his health damaged by torture.
Jeremy Hunt’s intention to make Brexit Britain a beacon in defence of freedom of expression is both a problem and an opportunity. The foreign secretary has made a point of raising the imprisonment of two Reuters reporters in Burma. Also, in contrast to his lamentable predecessor Boris Johnson, Mr Hunt has been working on the case of the imprisoned charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran. All this is part of a planned push for 2019 that he hopes will boost multinational efforts to tackle fake news, intimidation and the murder of reporters, bloggers, photographers and their unsung local “fixers”.
So far, so good. The initiative, however, will have conviction only if it is consistent. That means not just calling out countries where it is easy and opportune, such as Putin’s Russia and the Burmese generals. Will we really risk the wrath of China? Most countries are now too scared of its economic might. What about Bahrain, the UAE or Saudi Arabia?
Arguably the biggest global threat to freedom of expression comes from Donald Trump. Not only does he humiliate and threaten reporters but in so doing he has empowered dictators. Every time he attacks journalists, or praises those who harm them, our government must denounce him. Free expression is a principle, not a bargaining chip. For any campaign to convince, it needs to apply to one and all.
John Kampfner is an author and broadcaster.