This article has been updated on 22 September 2020 with new information about the legal action.
Journalists at Declassified UK, a military and foreign policy news website, fight back after they have been selectively denied access to information.
"This strikes me as being contrary to basic notions of media freedom," editor Mark Curtis who co-founded Declassified UK, a subsite of the South Africa-based news outlet Daily Maverick, told Journalism.co.uk. The outlet is now considering legal action against MoD.
After days of growing pressure, the Council of Europe has today issued a Level 2 media freedom alert that the UK government will have to formally respond to. This move came after the International Press Institute (IPI) wrote to the UK Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State for Defence asking them to clarify the selective approach to which media they provide information to.
"Government blacklisting of critical media undermines press freedom and stands in stark contrast with the UK’s own efforts to defend journalists’ rights globally. We urge the Ministry of Defence to clarify its media relations policy and its treatment of Declassified UK specifically, as well as to take steps to ensure equal treatment of media outlets regardless of their real or perceived editorial line," Scott Griffen, deputy director of IPI, told Journalism.co.uk.
On 25 August, Declassify UK journalist Phil Miller contacted the MoD’s press office to request a comment about the arrest of Ahmed al Babati, a serving soldier, near Downing Street for protesting the United Kingdom’s involvement in Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen.
Miller was promised information at first but the press office later called him to enquire about the publication’s editorial coverage of the conflict.
"What sort of angle have you taken on the war in Yemen?” the MoD spokesperson asked.
"It’s just very factually documenting British military and defence industry support for the Saudi coalition," Miller replied.
Not long after, Miller received an email telling him that the MoD was not going to send him anything that day, but that he should "submit an FOI [Freedom of Information request] for anything that you require".
Later that day, however, the Telegraph newspaper run an article on the soldier’s protest with a comment from an army spokesperson. It became apparent that the MoD chose to provide information to one media outlet but not another, without an explanation.
When Miller enquired with his contact at the press office, he was told: "My understanding from the office is that we no longer deal with your publication."
Matt Kennard, investigative journalist and co-founder of Declassified UK, suspects that MoD blacklisted the publication in retaliation for its coverage of Royal Air Force training Saudi personnel on fighter jets used to bomb civilians in Yemen and Britain’s intelligence agencies training senior spies from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt last year.
Curtis says: "We are not aware of any other media organisation to which the MoD refuses to give comments as a matter of policy. Withholding comments from Declassified undermines the MOD itself but it also undermines a basic principle of the professional media - that journalists will always provide a right reply to those criticised in its work."
"The MOD's stonewalling and refusal to engage with Phil Miller, a journalist at Declassified UK is unfortunately part of a broader move by the UK Government to avoid scrutiny and restrict an independent and vibrant press from holding power to account. If critical outlets are to be retaliated against due to their coverage and scrutiny, the UK threatens to undermine the very foundations upon which media freedom is established," commented Nik Williams, media freedom rapid response coordinator at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.
In addition to the letter by IPI, the publication has received support from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Index on Censorship.
"All journalists and media organisations should be concerned about the MoD's boycott of Declassified. The MoD is sending a message - if you criticise us, we might blacklist you. If a public body demands that independent journalists be compliant to its wishes, it doesn't believe in a free media at all. That is an exceedingly worrying sign and a major blow to journalism in the public interest," says Curtis.
An MoD spokesperson declined to comment on this story.
Update: On 25 August 2020, Law firm Leigh Day has sent a legal letter to Ben Wallace asking for an urgent clarification from the MoD on their blacklisting of Declassified. The letter notes that such a policy would be a serious breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. It also notes that the actions of the MoD press team may also contravene duties of impartiality and neutrality set out in the Government Communication Service Propriety Guidance as well as the Civil Service Code. You can read the full letter here.
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