By William James
LONDON (Reuters) - Countries that restrict media freedom must be made to pay a diplomatic price, British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said on Wednesday, as he warned about a deteriorating situation in China and elsewhere.
He said China employed millions of people to censor content, produce fake social media posts and manipulate online output.
"If we act together we can shine a spotlight on abuses and impose a diplomatic price on those who'd harm journalists or lock them up for doing their jobs," Hunt said, without elaborating on the measures that could be taken.
China announced a new campaign last month to clean up its internet said in November it had shut nearly 10,000 accounts of news providers deemed to be posting sensational, vulgar or politically harmful content.
Hunt, underdog in the race succeed Theresa May as British prime minister, said countries should not "succumb to fatalism" in response to attacks on media freedom such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul.
His comments at a conference in London were echoed by Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, a British special envoy on media freedom.
She criticised world leaders for shrugging off the murder of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, and criticised U.S. President Donald Trump.
"Today, the country of (former U.S. president) James Madison has a leader who vilifies the media, making honest journalists all over the world more vulnerable to abuse," she said.
Trump regularly mounts attacks on the news media and political opponents on Twitter. He says he can bypass what he labels unfair media coverage by speaking directly using social media.
Hunt also said he disagreed with Trump's use of language towards journalists.
The media freedom conference was hosted by Britain with the Canadian government and attended by delegations from more than 100 countries.
It aimed to defend media freedom from restrictive practices by governments, encourage participants to develop plans to legislate for a free press, help improve journalists' safety and counter disinformation.
($1 = 0.8008 pounds)
(Reporting by William James; Writing by David Milliken; Editing by William Schomberg and Alison Williams)