Britain's new press rules may set bad global precedent, watchdog warns

LONDON (REUTERS) - Prime Minister David Cameron's plan for press regulation threatens press freedom and could serve as a precedent for authoritarian governments across the world who want to gag their journalists, a leading media watchdog warned on Wednesday.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged Mr Cameron to amend the plans, which include a decree and legislation aimed at protecting the public from newspaper reporters aggressively searching for salacious stories. The proposals, supported by Britain's three largest parties, are a response to the public uproar created when it emerged in 2011 that reporters at one of Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers had hacked into a murdered schoolgirl's phone.

"Prime Minister, we urge you to take a step back from the current proposals, which do not take into account the implications for press freedom beyond Fleet Street," the New York-based CPJ said in an open letter to Mr Cameron.

"Any attempt, no matter how well-intentioned, to embed press regulation in law has far-reaching implications for press freedom across much of the world," it said, adding the proposals also did not clarify rules for bloggers and online journalists.

The CPJ warned Mr Cameron that governments seeking to pass legislation to restrict media freedom could feel encouraged by his plans.

"It would be highly regrettable if such leaders could point to the British Parliament as precedent for introducing statutory media controls or regulations," the CPJ said.

Following an inquiry into press behaviour led by Judge Brian Leveson, Britain's new regulatory system will be voluntary, but there will be strong financial incentives to encourage newspapers to opt into it.

Newspapers that do not join the new regulatory system could face exemplary costs and damages under future new legislation, if they breach the rights of ordinary people, Mr Cameron said when he unveiled the new plan last month.

The proposed new press regulator could levy fines of up to 1 million pounds (S$1.87 million) and oblige newspapers to print prominent apologies where appropriate, prompting threats by some press barons to boycott the new regulatory regime.

Britain's Conservatives, their junior coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and the opposition Labour party reached a compromise after agreeing to enact legislation to ensure the new system could not be easily altered later.

Hacked Off, a lobbying group for victims of the press in Britain, has welcomed the proposed plans, saying it combined the rights of the press, as well as of victims of aggressive reporting.

"The signal to the world, if they read beyond the headlines of what is happening in Britain and beyond the scaremongering of some national newspapers, is that it is possible to protect citizens from the kind of abuses that made the Leveson inquiry necessary, while at the same time protecting freedom of the press," said Mr Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off.