It is an anxious morning in the sweltering newsroom of the London College of Communication, and as the first tangerine light of day starts creeping in through the shutters, the foreign secretary of the British government, Boris Johnson is escorted in by his armed bodyguard, to meet and greet a handful of students, teachers, and refugee journalists.
The former Mayor of London is here in honour of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, and as a former journalist himself, (he was controversially editor of The Spectator) he is ready to hear the stories of other journalists whose career paths were very different to his.
The scarlet lights on the cameras surrounding us, one for BBC Newsbeat and one for the Foreign Office, were on and already blinking, half-an-hour before the foreign secretary arrived fashionably late in an overly slim-cut white Oxford shirt.
Shaking each person’s hand, he greets us all; a group of refugee journalists, the BBC crew holding up a massive silver reflective light, a full team of ministry press people, our computers up and running for background decor, plus a classmate and myself.
Following the meeting with the refugee journalists, Omima Elmattawaa and I interview the foreign secretary in the TV studio, as we are respectively from Libya and Turkey. We politely smile, repeating that we are not refugee journalists nor on a scholarship scheme every time after we say which countries we are from.
In 2013, United Nations General Assembly determined that November 2 should be the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, urging member states to implement definite measures countering the present culture of impunity and stating concern that impunity covers up grave human rights abuses, corruption and crime.
In the past eleven years (2006-2016), around 930 journalists have been killed for reporting the news and bringing information to the public. In nine out of ten cases the killers go unpunished.
The foreign secretary is at LCC to promote his concern for freedom of the press in less democratic countries. However, by the end of his visit, it becomes apparent that his knowledge of the plight of journalists in countries such as Syria, Libya, and Turkey is dubious, to say the least, and shortly after his visit, he was plunged into controversy over his comments which could double the sentence of a British-Iranian woman being held in Iran.
Johnson resonates blissful self-assurance as ever, while inquiries on nationalities circle the room. As is usually the case, in my experience, with people from countries where human rights are still challenged, each journalist wants to offer a better understanding around the issue in their homeland to a person who has never experienced a similar, relatable occasion in their life.
How does one explain that there is no press freedom for reasons that resist secular explanation? Or what it is like to be afraid of forming sentences, voicing your opinion, writing, merely telling the truth, taking a photograph or even tweeting?
As he looks around the room, Johnson seems to be at ease and in a rush at the same time, offering agile nods and smiles. Perhaps it is difficult for him to empathise with the lack of press freedom while being one of the most written-about and criticised political figures in the UK. Regardless, he is here to listen to the experiences of these young people as he walks towards where we are seated.
Mohamed Alaradi is a refugee journalist who was imprisoned for two months after taking photographs of the Arab Spring demonstrations in his home, Bahrain. He describes the protests in his country as a tradition happening nearly every other decade, almost like a rite of passage. His father was put in prison after protesting for more rights, later his brothers, and finally, him. During his time in prison, Mohamed was tortured.
“It felt like a staged event,” he says of the meeting. “When I said I am from Bahrain, he was asked to take questions from others, the Syrian refugee journalists, because they [the British government] support the Bahraini government. “From then on, he talked to the others. I felt like my opinion didn’t matter. When I was telling my story, he [Johnson] said, but you’re Shia. Because I am Shia, I have no rights?”
Abdulwahab Tahhan, who was raised in Aleppo, Syria and is now a refugee journalist settled in the UK, agrees with Mohamed. He believes that foreign secretary was given a free pass.
“We have seen Raqqa being flattened out and destroyed, and civilians did not have safe passages to leave. When I pressed him about Raqqa, he did not comment, and one of his aides asked him to take questions from others as well,” Abdulwahab tells me. “I felt like he was given a golden platform to argue his case but was not challenged at all.”
While the conversation between refugee journalists and Johnson continued in the newsroom, Omima and I moved to the TV studio; the foreign secretary arrives a couple of minutes after us, and after taking his seat under the blinding lights, he turns to greet us politely.
Johnson has perfected the not-too-formal greet; a polite hand-shake, a loud, spontaneous joke about something like where to sit and the chuckle that slowly turns into a somewhat serious comment. Perhaps it is his largely relaxed and informal, often criticised as inappropriate, attitude that makes him so relatable and popular amongst his supporters, a current worldwide trend amongst politicians nowadays — until the comment evolves into more of a faux pas.
One of his press people approaches the table to announce we will each get only one question to ask, seconds before we start rolling. Action!
The interview begins lightly with the same ‘where are you from’ small talk. When Omima repeats that she is from Libya, the foreign secretary announces that although he has been to Libya a couple of times, he hasn’t re-studied the media of the country, even though he was there just last month and made a gaffe comparing Libya to Dubai, suggesting they should simply “clear the dead bodies“.
During the next couple of minutes, my eyes jump back and forth, watching this awkward ping-pong match which makes the three of us nervously chuckle.
“What a country, it is an amazing place,” Johnson offers, “but it’s got kind of, um, you know two parliaments, three prime ministers, four governments. For six million people, it has got a lot of politics going on.”
In Libya, there is no authority entirely in control since the toppling of long-term leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Currently, a new UN-backed ‘unity’ government is installed in a naval base in Tripoli which faces opposition from two rival governments and a host of militias. Libya is in a state of political instability, and reporters face threats and attacks.
Johnson says he thinks one of the problems in Libya seems to be that all the other players around the world have different views about what should happen, and the crucial thing is for them to “shut up” and allow the UN to bring the bodies together.
Omima did not get to ask her actual questions due to a shortage of time after stating there is “no media” as we know it there at the moment.
“I think that as a foreign secretary, I actually expected him to know more about Libya — especially since he was recently there,” says Omima about the interview, “but instead, I ended up telling him about what’s really going on.”
[pullquote align=”right”]“He did make a big mistake, and I do agree he should have been more careful and more considerate.”[/pullquote]My home country, on the other hand, is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world at the moment with one-third of the world’s imprisoned journalists, media workers and executives being held in Turkey’s prisons in 2016. I ask the foreign secretary what the British government’s view on the situation is or if they have taken any firm actions.
Johnson quickly goes on to say that they raise this issue regularly with their “Turkish friends”, the Turkish ministers that he meets, and that the Prime Minister regularly raises this with President Tayyip Erdogan.
“Obviously, Turkey had a really terrible experience with the coup attempt on July 13 of last year, [July 15 is the correct date] and people in other parts of Europe didn’t understand quite what a frightening moment it was for loads of Turkish people,” he says.
“Because I think, a couple of hundred people died, you know, I saw the attack on the Parliament building, it was a serious business, and there was clearly an attempt to remove the elected government.”
In reality, 265 people lost their lives, and more than 1,400 were injured on July 15. It has been sixteen months since the attempted coup, and more than 500,000 people were arrested, and another 10,000 sacked from their jobs in the aftermath.
“The first thing that the EU said was, kind of ‘oh, Turkey must avoid a crackdown and blah blah blah…’ Johnson continues, “I think, in the end, we’ve got the messages a bit better, but there’s no doubt now there is concern about journalists and human rights activists.”
The foreign secretary says the overall picture for him is that Turkey is of huge importance to the UK, and they are keen to preserve good relations with the country whilst being able to say to their ‘friends’, however when it comes to journalism and human rights, they have serious concerns.
Johnson thinks it would be a mistake to start putting Turkey into a category that says “Turkey’s going disastrously wrong” and push it away since he believes the country’s future is as part of the great, democratic nations.
While it is crucial for Turkey’s own future, as well as that of Europe, that the country does not steer too far away from the European ideals of democracy, how is not condoning, in fact justifying these acts in an attempt to not push Turkey away, help improve the situation of the country or these journalists?
Nevertheless, Johnson has come a long way regarding his views on the future and the leadership of Turkey, and his Turkish friends, since winning The Spectator’s President Erdogan Offensive Poetry competition.
The interview is abruptly cut short by one of his press officers, and the meeting concludes with Johnson’s declaration of a £1million fund to help end impunity for crimes against journalists.
“What we’re doing today as the foreign office is giving UK cash of a million pounds towards the support of people who want to protect the human rights of journalists and the ability of journalists to protect themselves around the world,” he tells the BBC reporter.
“People will bid in for the fund, and so, local groups who, there are many many many around the world, in civil society who want to speak up for free speech, for the rights of journalists, they will bid in to our fund. We’ll see how it goes, we’ll see how it’s used and if it’s a success, then we’ll see if we can put some more.”
All well and good for the foreign secretary, and the foreign office and journalists everywhere. Except for the fact that the day before this meeting took place, Johnson had made a comment in Parliament about Nazanin-Zaghari Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British mother who has been detained in Tehran since April 2016.
She is currently serving a five-year sentence in prison after an Iranian court convicted her of plotting to overthrow the clerical establishment, while her three-year-old daughter who was with her on holiday in Tehran, now stays with Nazanin’s Iranian family.
Johnson stated that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was ‘simply training journalists’ while her family and her employer Thomson Reuters Foundation — a charity organisation that operates independently of Reuters News — repeatedly insisted that she was just on holiday and has never trained journalists in her life.
While the foreign secretary initially claimed his words were taken out of context and they would not have any implications on Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, the comment was seen by the Iranian government as a form of confession, it was heavily reported in the Iranian news and the authorities threatened to add five more years to Nazanin’s sentence.
It took Boris Johnson twelve days and many headlines to apologise. Following a one-hour meeting with Mr Johnson, Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s British husband said there was only one point that his wife wanted to make to the foreign secretary: “what it’s like to watch yourself being called a spy on TV every night, which has happened only in the last two weeks,” following Johnson’s gaffe.
“I don’t want to be a campaigning husband and father any longer,” Ratcliffe said. “I want to go back to being an ordinary husband and father, with my wife and child at my side.”There are reports suggesting that Britain is preparing plans to transfer over £400 million to Iran to secure ‘goodwill’ deal. The amount is originally a debt dating back to 38 years ago, from a controversial arms deal involving the Chieftain tanks that Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had paid for before abandoning the throne in 1979.
The tanks were never delivered; however, US and UN sanctions have kept Britain from making the payment before, whereas it is now back on the table in a possible attempt to improve relations with Iran.
Officials from both Tehran and London insist the £400 million and Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case are not connected, but the release of Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post journalist, and three other Iranian-American journalists also coincided with the United States making a $400m cash delivery to Iran.
Meanwhile, supporters of Nazanin marched in North London, calling for the London mother to be brought back home. Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson was among the crowd, urging Boris Johnson to “deal with the problem he’s so seriously exacerbated.”
Mr Ratcliffe says the new court date has been set for December 10, and it could see Johnson’s remarks included as evidence against Nazanin, diminishing hopes for her to be back home by Christmas.
The only possible positive outcome could be the gaffe serving as a means to urgency by the British government and Johnson himself, as his comments paved the way for his competency to be once again questioned, and hopefully not as grounds for her sentence to be prolonged in Iran.
“He did make a big mistake, and I do agree he should have been more careful and more considerate. As a Syrian, I know exactly what she might have been subjected to,” says Fardous Bahbah, one of the Syrian refugee journalists who met foreign secretary. She agrees with Mr Ratcliffe that the focus should be on freeing Nazanin rather than talking about making Boris Johnson step down.
“They [the British government] should use their diplomatic and political ties to influence a regime that abuses journalists. We need a better world peace system as the UN is not functioning properly.”
The meeting held at LCC was about what Britain, as the democratic and open country it is, can do to help journalists worldwide, in countries such as Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Turkey, Russia, China, and others; to engage in conversation and implement support through UNESCO to stop the violation of the rights of these journalists.
There appears to be an inherent contradiction while we talk about the positives of refugee journalists coming to Britain and what more could be done to improve this issue around the world, whilst we continue to see examples of how unjustly even British journalists are being treated. When will the actions match the words?
As far as the future of press freedom goes, we are all watching for Nazanin’s case, waiting to see what will happen. Will the British-Iranian mother and her daughter be back home for Christmas? Where are we with justice, not just with words, but in real-life situations?
“Stop killing journalists day” as the foreign secretary refers to it in the newsroom addressing refugee journalists with a chuckle, is just one in 365 days. Meanwhile, a journalist is being killed every four days.
Featured image provided by the Foreign Office.