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 open media environment in 2008. The law provides for freedom of the press, and the government generally respects this right in practice. In March 2008 the House of Lords voted to abolish antiquated laws criminalizing blasphemy and blasphemous libel. However, there remain several laws that weaken press freedom. Legislation from the 1980s states that 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 terrorist bombings on London’s mass transit system, the government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which took effect in 2006 and includes provisions that criminalize speech considered to encourage terrorism, even in the absence of a direct, proven link to a terrorist act. A religious hatred law introduced in 2006 criminalized incitement of religious hatred or violence. Libel laws heavily favor the plaintiff in the United Kingdom, with the defendant bearing the burden of proof. As a result, the country has become an increasingly popular destination for “libel tourism” in which foreign plaintiffs bring libel actions against foreign defendants in British courts. Members of Parliament have recently pushed for reform of the libel laws, but none had passed by year’s end. In February, Israeli art history professor Gannit Ankori threatened the College Art Association (CAA), a New York–based scholarly organization, with a libel suit in the United Kingdom, alleging that a review of his book on Palestinian art in the CAA’s Art Journal had been defamatory. In May, citing the high risk and cost of contesting libel suits in Britain, the CAA apologized to Ankori and agreed to a settlement.
Physical attacks on the media are rare. However, in September 2008 four men were arrested for an arson attack on the office of the London publishing house Gibson Square. Authorities speculated that the arson was due to the publisher’s decision to release the controversial novel The Jewel of Medina, a fictionalized account of the relationship between the prophet Muhammad and one of his wives. The U.S. publisher Random House had already dropped plans to release the book for fear of reprisals. Separately, in a May letter to the London Times, several journalists voiced their opposition to police requiring British and American reporters to reveal details of their interviews with former Islamist militant Hassan Butt. They claimed the police demands were “a serious risk to the future of investigative journalism.”
Journalists reporting on sensitive political issues regularly face intimidation in Northern Ireland. However, in a positive development, continuing investigations into the 2001 murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan made some progress in 2008. Four suspects were arrested in September, with two charged for the murder and two charged as accomplices. The trial was ongoing at year’s end. It is believed that O’Hagan was killed for his investigations into cooperation among Northern Ireland police, military intelligence, illegal 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 Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and many of the private national papers remain aligned with political parties. Few commercial radio news stations exist, and the handful currently operating are reportedly struggling to stay financially viable. However, there are several independent news television channels, 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 home secretary, and there are departments in place to handle public complaints of abuse. Nearly 71 percent of the population was able to access the internet without restriction in 2008.