Centre for Internet & Society

Britain could trigger an international media crackdown if the Government goes ahead with plans for a Royal Charter to introduce a new Press regulator, free speech campaigners warned yesterday.

Read the article written by Jerome Starkey from Johannesburg, Francis Elliott from Delhi and David Brown. It was published in the Times on March 21, 2013. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

Oppressive regimes will use the example of the planned regulation in Britain to justify tighter controls on their own media, it was claimed. Campaigners from across the Commonwealth are preparing to urge the Queen not to approve the Royal Charter when it is presented by the Privy Council on May 8. Senior journalists and campaigners in Africa and Asia accused Britain of “chilling media freedom” by legitimising state interference in the media.

Phenyo Butale, the director of South Africa’s Freedom of Expression Institute, said: “African governments have shown they are uncomfortable with free press acting as a watchdog, holding them to account. A move to statutory regulation in the UK would really be a gift for them.”

In Somalia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist, reporters said that they were alarmed by the British plans. “It’s alarming that the British Government is regulating the freedom of its press,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, secretary-general of the Somali Union of Journalists.

Sunil Abraham, director of the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based organisation that campaigns against the Indian Government’s often heavy-handed attempts to regulate online content, said that the UK had surrendered the moral high ground in an important international debate.

“The UK has traditionally made free speech an important component of their foreign policy and when their own internal actions contradict their external position . . . they no longer have any influence on the Indian situation,” he said.

The Editorial Board of The New York Times wrote that the proposed regulation would “do more harm than good”, adding: “It is worth keeping in mind that journalists at newspapers like The Guardianand The [New York] Times, not the police, first brought to light the scope and extent of hacking by British tabloids. It would be perverse if regulations . . . ended up stifling the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism that brought it to light in the first place.”

Mumsnet, one of the most popular blogging sites, has sought a guarantee from the Government that it would not be caught by the regulations. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport told the website that it “will ultimately be for the court to decide on the definition of a ‘relevant publisher’ ” covered by the new regulations “but our view is that Mumsnet would not be covered by the new regime”.

Justine Roberts, the website’s founder, has asked to be specifically included in the list of exempted websites.

The House of Lords will vote on Monday on the definition of “relevant publisher” when peers consider new amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill. Some of Britain’s major newspaper and magazine publishers have indicated that they will not join the new regulator.