Matthew Gordon-Banks

Was UK right to sanction a UK journalist over Ukraine?

In the early months of 2018 I travelled to the new Republic of Crimea to attend a conference. The peninsula had always been Russian in nature and the conference was concerned about the international political situation and economic development in Crimea itself. For me it was intellectual.

During that visit which lasted just a few days, I unexpectedly met British born journalist Graham Phillips who was later to become the subject of UK sanctions; primarily of an asset based nature . When the matter came to Court in UK it became the first time a Court considered the relationship between financial sanctions and freedom of speech.

Phillips, a “mono-British national” who considered himself a journalist, had been seeking to provide a counter-balance between the Western narrative of war in Ukraine versus what he saw as the truth. Phillips frequently highlighted the hypocrisy of Western policy; and as a result attracted the ire of the establishment, in his native UK.

When I first came across Phillips I was at the back of a small group to whom he said hello. It was absolutely no coincidence he was in Crimea at that location at a time when a number of Western visitors arrived. He was friendly. I had not come across him before. However, my over-riding impression was that he was somewhat ‘in ones face’;  a little too good to be true. He was clearly more than just a ‘journalist’.

I try to keep in touch with all those I meet on matters relating to international relations and I did not recall until recently that a short set of messages existed between myself and Phillips, of which I had completely forgotten, in September 2018 of the same year asking if he was in Moscow during a time I was visiting the city. He was not. It was a friendly, short exchange. That I made a brief contact confirm for me that I had no axe to grind whatsoever.

My attention was drawn to his case recently as a result of a well known UK journalist writing his weekly column for the Mail on Sunday, bemoaning the sanctions on Phillips as an act against free speech and comparing Phillips to Julian Assange. I thought the latter inappropriate since Assange published information presented to him whereas Phillips often went out and created his own news stories.

I think that the UK government’s description of Phillips may be just a little over the top: he is according to them allegedly “a propagandist for Russia, supported and feted by the Russian authorities, and that he publishes content that feeds into a Russian propaganda narrative, thereby supporting and promoting actions and policies which destabilise Ukraine and undermine or threaten Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence”. Pompous and hypocritical in part.

However, there is one action in particular that for me has little sympathy for Phillips, even though I know it must be very difficult living under the sanctions he has to endure. His interviewing for television Mr Aiden Aslin, a British mercenary fighting for Ukraine, whilst he was a captive prisoner of war. Whilst there can be a debate about whether a mercenary has any protection under the Geneva Convention, the fact that Phillips could access Mr Auslin whilst in Russian captivity is significant.

There can also be a debate about whether Mr Auslin was interviewed for television willingly or under duress, but it is a fact that he was interviewed whilst in captivity. Whether this was or was not a contravention of the Geneva Convention is likewise also to debate but in acting as he did Phillips crossed a major line in my view between matters of freedom of speech and a war crime.

Phillips maintains that the sanctions against him are unlawful. He thus as a point of principle refuses to engage on the matter. Perhaps a less robust approach by Phillips acknowledging that it was a ‘mistake’, an ‘error’ to interview a prisoner of war in such circumstances might alleviate his situation; but so far he refuses to consider such a course of action.

Phillips has done some good work in humanitarian aid circles. He has often made very pertinent points publicly about the conflict in Ukraine. However, the sanctions he has been placed under for the one reason alone I have highlighted seem to me almost inevitable.

When he was designated, Phillips’s UK bank account was frozen and other accounts he used have been frozen too. His entire income stream has, he alleged, dried up – including his ability to make money from videos posted on online platforms – and he is now being pursued for unpaid debts. Phillips has a Russian bank account, into which he receives donations, but he chose not to disclose details of the donations that have been paid into his account, or the source of those donations, to the UK High Court. Phillips also claims the designation has meant he has been denied time with UK-based family.

The High Court recognised that the designation “significantly interferes” with rights Phillips has under the European Convention on Human Rights – including his right to peaceful possession of his assets, his right to respect for private and family life and his home. However, it considered that the interference with those rights is proportionate to achieve the “legitimate aim of the UK’s national security”.

“[Phillips] decided to set his face against an overwhelming international consensus, to align himself with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to travel to the frontline, and to help Russia fight its propaganda war,” Mr Justice Johnson, the High Court judge, said. “He has not shown any journalistic responsibility or ethics. His actions directly support Russia in its policies or actions that destabilise Ukraine. There are good reasons to take a firm stand against that conduct so as to pursue the purpose of the 2019 Regulations and seek to encourage Russia to change its course.”

“The sanctions pursue a legitimate aim, are rationally connected to that aim, and there is no other less intrusive measure that could have the same impact. They also strike a fair balance between the claimant’s Convention rights and the legitimate aim that the defendant seeks to pursue. They are therefore proportionate. It follows that the interference with the claimant’s Convention rights is justified, and that the continued designation of the claimant is lawful,” it said.

In reaching its decision, the court considered not only the impact of the designation on Phillips but the role of propaganda in Russia’s war in Ukraine too. It also evaluated both the wording of the UK’s sanctions legislation, as well as parliament’s intention behind it, and the equivalent EU legislation that used to have effect in the UK pre-Brexit.

For me, the interviewing of a prisoner of war whilst in captivity remains a stumbling block, is probably against the dictats of the Geneva Convention and requires an apology. It is an assault on free speech to prevent legitimate comment on the reasons, nature and outcomes of the conflict in Ukraine. However, the problem with Phillips is that he consistently went beyond that line.

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