IBA conference: Amal Clooney marks the end of ‘regressive leadership and moral bankruptcy’ of Trump era in media freedom talk

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By Polly Botsford on

Session also highlights attacks on free expression

Amal Clooney and Donald Trump

Amal Clooney took the opportunity to neatly sum up her opinion of Donald Trump’s presidency in a session on press freedom and human rights at the IBA conference yesterday.

Clooney, international human rights lawyer and half of the famous power couple, did not hold back when she told delegates from across the globe, that 2021 is “a year of opportunity” not least because Joe Biden’s victory heralded an end to “the regressive leadership and moral bankruptcy of his predecessor … Progress is on the horizon”.

Speaking over Zoom in front of what felt like a deliberately neutral backdrop, Clooney was taking part in a panel session on press freedom and how to support those suffering human rights abuses for their reporting: “We know that in the COVID era silencing the truth has become deadly. Individuals in China who tried to report on the virus when it was first detected were prosecuted for spreading false rumours allowing the virus to spread whilst people were in the dark.”

Discussing a new report published by what is known as the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, of which Clooney is Deputy-Chair (and chaired by none other than Lord Neuberger, former UK Supreme Court president), she emphasised that the focus was on enforcing existing international rules not writing new ones: “Our aim is to bring to life the commitment made by over 170 governments which ratified international covenant on civil and political rights including protecting a free press.”

She continued:

“The aim is not to change the rules but to ensure there are real-life consequences attached to breaking them.”

The session highlighted the number of deaths of journalists that are still unprosecuted including Jamal Kashoggi, the Saudia Arabian killed in Istanbul, the Northern Irish reporter, Lyra McKee, and Maltese investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, one of whose sons, Matthew, was also on the panel.

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Key recommendations of the report include a minimum number of what are known as ‘emergency’ visas for those who are at risk of violence or arbitrary arrest to be offered by governments annually (and that would include the UK), and a new charter for consular assistance when a journalist has been arrested including prison visits, access to legal advice, and trial monitoring, and, if necessary, repatriation.

The report also focuses on targeted sanctions against countries that violate human rights. Clooney referenced her aim that governments should adopt legislation to allow for financial sanctions against “human rights abusers”.

Clooney does, of course, have a lot to do with the US these days being married to an American, with a pied-à-terre in Los Angeles and a brief spell teaching at Columbia Law School. But it is also the case that Trump has had a curious relationship with free expression. Having been an avid Twitter user these past four years he has also accused the social media company of clamping down on his free expression as he did during an online bust-up over his allegations that mail-in ballots would be “substantially fraudulent”. Twitter put a warning label on the Tweet and Trump accused it of “stifling free speech”.

Though with clear US connections, Clooney’s main professional home is at Doughty Street Chambers. From there she has represented persecuted Reuters journalists sentenced to seven years in prison in Myanmar following their expose of crimes against the Rohingyas there. She also acts for the Yazidi community from Iraq who suffered at the hands of ISIS and for which Clooney is seeking accountability for genocide.

More information on the work of the High Level Panel can be read here.

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