Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
With a history of aggressive reporting and an editorially independent public broadcasting system, the United Kingdom maintained its free press environment in 2006. The law provides for freedom of the press, and the government generally respects this right in practice. However, legislation is in place under which journalists deemed to have information vital to a police investigation can be forced to give evidence at trial. In the aftermath of the July 2005 bombings on the London underground, the government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (which came into effect in April 2006) that includes provisions for the criminalization of forms of free speech considered by the government to be “encouragements of terrorism,” even without proof of a direct link to a terrorist act. A religious hatred bill introduced in January 2006 criminalizes incitement of religious hatred or violence, although the bill that passed was weakened from its original form, allowing for rights to ridicule or cause offense to religious groups. The Freedom of Information Act has drawn criticism in the past year owing to several exemptions for sensitive issues related to national security and health and safety, along with frequent bureaucratic delays in responding to requests. Government proposals to introduce fees for certain time-consuming requests have also inspired media criticism. Figures released in December 2006 revealed that 40 percent of information requests were turned down by the government.
The United Kingdom’s stringent libel laws were reformed in 2006 as the result of a law lords ruling in a libel case. Libel laws traditionally have heavily favored the plaintiff in the United Kingdom, with the burden of truth placed solely on the defendant. In deciding a libel case in October, however, the law lords chose in favor of the defendant—The Wall Street Journal Europe—despite the paper’s lack of evidence in its defense. The lords justified their decision by arguing that the article in question was in the public interest, a ruling that should afford journalists greater freedom to report allegations against public figures without fear of reprisal. Further, in December the government introduced the Defamation bill, which will reportedly make it more difficult to bring unsubstantiated libel cases.
There were no physical attacks on the media during the year. However, in Northern Ireland, journalists routinely face intimidation, especially while investigating sensitive political issues. In 2006, a reporter from the Sunday World investigating paramilitary activities received several death threats. Press freedom groups expressed concern regarding a new law that would extend the powers of the police to search and seize documents, which could jeopardize the ability of journalists to protect their sources. Continuing investigations into the 2001 murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan have produced few results, with eight separate suspects arrested and released owing to lack of evidence. It is believed that O’Hagan was killed for his investigations into cooperation among Northern Irish police, military intelligence, armed groups, and drug gangs.
British media are free and largely independent from government interference. The United Kingdom has a strong tradition of public broadcasting, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, although funded by the government, is editorially independent. Ownership of independent media outlets is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies, including those headed by Rupert Murdoch, and many of the private national papers remain aligned with political parties. Few commercial radio news stations exist—in fact, 8 of the 11 radio news stations are affiliated with the BBC—but several independent news television channels operate throughout the country, including ITV and British Sky Broadcasting. Authorities may monitor internet messages and e-mail without judicial permission in the name of national security and “well-being.” However, surveillance must be approved by the secretary of state, and there are departments in place to handle public complaints of abuse as well as interception warrants. An estimated 62 percent of the population was able to access the internet without restriction in 2006.