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Middle East Eye journalist refused entry to cover UK arms fair

Ian Cobain was told DSEI arms fair's security team had 'final say' after his application to attend next week's event was rejected
Attendees try rifles on show at the British government-backed DSEI arms fair (AFP)

A senior Middle East Eye journalist has been denied access to a British government-backed arms fair for unspecified reasons on the advice of the event’s security team.

Ian Cobain, a veteran reporter and author who has previously worked for The Guardian and The Times newspapers, was told on Wednesday that his application to cover next week’s DSEI arms fair in London had been rejected by the security team.

Cobain was initially told that his accreditation was being held up because the event's "security team" wanted to check that he was a suitable journalist to be covering an arms fair.

In a subsequent email, the security team said: "After reviewing your application we are unable to establish that you are a journalist/editor/production team member in a relevant field." 

Cobain informed the event's security team and press office that he had been a journalist for more than 35 years, had reported on several wars and had worked alongside the British military in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bosnia and Northern Ireland.

This was supported with links to his Wikipedia page and more than 100 bylined articles.

Despite this, DSEI's security advisers informed Cobain that he would not be admitted, saying in a second email: "Unfortunately, it has not been possible to grant accreditation on this occasion."

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A DSEI spokesperson subsequently denied that Cobain had been barred “as a security matter” but told MEE: "Every single registration is accepted or rejected by the security team - they have the final say."

“You won’t be barred on security grounds but the security team has the final say on who gets in.”

When it was put to the DSEI that the decision raised important issues of media freedom, the event's press office declined to respond.

Solomon Hughes, a journalist with Private Eye, a UK news and satirical magazine, subsequently said on social media that he too had been banned from the biennial event, despite having reported on it for the last three occasions.

The annual DSEI fair at the Excel centre in East London’s Docklands area, which officially opens on Tuesday, is supported by the British government’s Ministry of Defence and Department for International Trade (DIT) and is a regular target of protests by anti-arms trade campaigners.

On Tuesday, MEE reported on protests and efforts to disrupt preparations for the event by faith groups.

The DSEI website also lists the United Arab Emirates International Pavilion as an international partner and weapons companies BAE Systems and General Dynamics as “platinum partners”.

Countries invited to attend the event include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait, despite the fact that the British government has banned licences for new weapons sales to all five Arab states which are all part of a coalition suspected of committing war crimes in Yemen.

Cobain reported for MEE on a successful legal battle by the London-based NGO Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) that resulted in the courts ordering the British government to review its multi-billion dollar arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition.

Lawyers for the organisation had argued that the sales are in breach of international humanitarian law because of the disproportionate harm the weapons cause to civilians. 

'Totally unacceptable'

Seamus Dooley, assistant general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, told MEE: “Ian Cobain is an award-winning journalist; it is absurd that the security team for the arms fair have taken it upon themselves to decide he is ‘unsuitable’ to attend the event. 

"It is totally unacceptable for a journalist to be refused access in this way and it is a sinister breach of press freedom.

"The NUJ is calling on the organisers to reverse the decision and grant access so he can do his job in the public interest. Public events of this type should be open to the media and we would question why an investigative journalist of Ian Cobain’s standing should be excluded.”  

A spokesperson for CAAT said: "This is a shameful and disgraceful move on the part of DSEI. It is clearly politically motivated and shows how afraid the organisers are of scrutiny.

"Ian Cobain has been reporting on these issues for decades and Middle East Eye has played a crucial role in examining and exposing the abuses enabled by the companies that will be showcasing their arms next week.

"The message being sent by organisers is that arms dealers and authoritarian dictatorships are welcome at DSEI, but journalists are not. If DSEI cares for transparency and democracy, then it will apologise and reverse this appalling decision."

The decision to bar Cobain was taken 24 hours after the United Nations found that the UK and other arms exporting nations could be complicit in Saudi war crimes in Yemen due to the arms sales, intelligence and logistical support they have provided.