Previously on this blog, I’ve written about the need for activists to be an ‘awkward squad’ — a group of people who can be relied upon to kick up a fuss about small and innocuous infringements of human rights. If we wait for the egregious human rights violations to happen before we speak out, its already too late.
A good example of this might be the recent spat between Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch MP, and The Huffington Post. Last week, the Minister tweeted out screenshots of an email exchange between her communications team and Nadine White, a news reporter at the website’s UK Bureau.
No-one has been censored here. The minister simply expressed public annoyance with the journalist’s slightly pushy email manner. So its not a free speech issue, right?
Not so fast. The journalist’s name was clear in the email screenshots, meaning she (predictably) received abusive social media messages as a result. The effect of Badenoch’s messages was to ‘chill’ White and other reporters from asking impertinent questions in the future; and to whip up animosity towards journalists by portraying the tenacious reporting as unreasonable and “creepy.”
It would be wrong to suggest that Badenoch’s postings will, in themselves, encourage attacks against journalists or inspire any formal infringements on free speech. Clearly, that would be absurd.
However, other countries’ experiences in the erosion of press freedom teach us that more significant free speech violations do not occur until the people in power have laid a groundwork of animosity towards journalists through this kind of confrontational language. So Index on Censorship and ARTICLE 19 were right to file an alert on the Council of Europe’s Protection of Journalism platform. If we protest slight and unwitting attacks on press freedom, it makes more egregious violations a little less likely… and our democracy stays strong.
Lest anyone asks — by suggesting we ‘sweat the small stuff’ I’m not claiming that this incident was ‘small’ for Nadine White. Indeed, I’m sure the attention was pretty distressing, and that she felt embattled.
When I describe the incident as ‘minor’ or ‘small’ I do so in comparison with cases where the civil or criminal law imposes a penalty on the journalist for doing their job, or when their safety is jeopardised.
As it happens, the criminal law has been invoked this week to censor a journalist in the UK. On 28th January, Photographer Andy Aitchison was arrested for taking photographs of a protest at a barracks in Kent, where asylum seekers were being housed.