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 broadcaster, the United Kingdom maintained its open media environment in 2009. The law provides for freedom of the press, and the government generally respects this right in practice. Antiquated laws criminalizing blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in 2008. However, several laws that weaken press freedom remain in place. Under legislation from the 1980s, journalists deemed to have information that is vital to a police investigation can be forced to give evidence at trial. However, in a landmark ruling in June 2009, a court in Belfast, Northern Ireland, dismissed a police application to force journalist Suzanne Breen to hand over material she had received from a member of a paramilitary group, the Real IRA. The group had taken credit for the murder of two British soldiers in March. The International Federation of Journalists hailed the court’s decision as “a historic victory in the journalists’ fight for the protection of sources.”
In the aftermath of July 2005 terrorist bombings on London’s mass transit system, the government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Certain provisions of the law, which took effect in 2006, criminalize speech that is considered to encourage terrorism, even in the absence of a direct, proven link to a terrorist act. A religious hatred law enacted in 2006 criminalized incitement of religious hatred or violence, but no journalists were charged under this law during 2009.
English libel laws heavily favor the plaintiff, placing the burden of proof on the defendant. 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 English courts. A campaign led by the free-speech organizations Sense About Science, English PEN, and Index on Censorship launched a libel reform petition in Parliament in December, and Justice Secretary Jack Straw said he was preparing reform proposals for consideration by lawmakers in 2010. Meanwhile, libel cases proceeded in the courts in 2009. In May, a court ruled that science writer Simon Singh had libeled the British Chiropractic Association in his published criticism of the usefulness of chiropractic treatment. Singh’s appeal of the decision was pending at the end of the year.
Physical attacks on the media are rare, and none were reported in 2009. However, journalists covering sensitive political issues regularly face intimidation in Northern Ireland. Continuing investigations into the 2001 murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan made some progress in 2008 with the arrest of four suspects, but the trial suffered delays during 2009 and 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.
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 private media outlets is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and many of the private national newspapers remain aligned with political parties. Few commercial radio news stations exist, and the handful in operation are reportedly struggling financially. There are several independent television news channels, including ITV and British Sky Broadcasting.
More than 83 percent of the population accessed the internet without restriction in 2009. Authorities may monitor e-mail and other internet communications 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. To bring the country into compliance with European Union policy, a law that came into force in 2009 requires internet-service providers to retain usage records for one year.