CJA Newsletter

CJA Newsletter – June 2016

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President’s Report

New CJA International President, Mahindra Ved, pens a welcome note to CJA members:

Dear colleagues,

ON APRIL 13, 2016, when delegates at the conference in London elected me President, a new phase of “karma yoga” began for me to lead the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). I committed to do my best and work within the modest means available – or in their absence. In any case, a “working journalist”, as defined by India’s Working Journalist Act, 1955, must continue to ‘work’.

It’s a given that this ‘work’ for the CJA cannot be accomplished without the fullest cooperation of the members of its Executive Committee and at each branch level and their units in different cities, of its activists and supporters. Each of us is required to nurture it.

I see a special role for the UK branch for the simple reason that in London lays the umbilical cord, the Commonwealth Secretariat and myriad organisations under its umbrella.

Experiences may vary, but I have discerned a trend among journalists. Even as they write about other peoples’ problems, they are shy about their own. They tend to be modest. There is need to pierce through a general sense of cynicism and a certain reluctance to speak out and debate among us and with others on issues that we confront as professionals and as pro-active members of our respective societies.

We are scattered over a score of countries, but that is from out of 53 Commonwealth member-nations. We need to work and expand and take in more journalists from other countries while strengthening existing branches.

It is not easy – else it would have been accomplished faster and better. Major Commonwealth nations like Australia and New Zealand and Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and other African nations, do not have a CJA presence. Being voluntary efforts, the branches tend to go dormant when members become inactive, mostly for lack of time and lack of funds. Isn’t it universally true that any journalist anywhere is perennially seized with bread-and-butter issues?

My own effort to recruit journalists in the tiny Seychelles did not succeed. There as a Commonwealth Observer for the presidential elections last December, I tried to get two reporters interested. They said ‘yes’, but like it happens to a visiting journalist, it was courtesy that did not go beyond the visit.

Meeting him in London in April, I asked the CJA’s founder, the venerable Derek Ingram: What is the CJA — a guild, a trade union, a human rights body? His simple answer: a bit of all, but essentially, a body that stands for media freedom.

That remains our principal task, though not the only one. The nature and growth of media, and the extent of freedom they enjoy, vary dramatically among Commonwealth nations. A few have satisfactory conditions. A large majority present varying challenges to media freedom from different quarters. In very many, the media is under constant threat, and it is totally gagged in a few, leaving no scope for any improvement.

The point to note is that nowhere is the freedom absolute – it cannot be. Constant vigilance is required to keep pushing the frontiers of freedom – more easily said than done, but nevertheless, vital to the world’s democratic well-being. But then, democracy’s definition itself varies. Legal and constitutional language does not always reflect the actual level of freedom.

The sources of threat are many, but the main one comes from governments, no matter their commitment to democracy and freedom. Often, the media is molly-coddled and selectively showered with goodies, to be lulled into inaction.

The Commonwealth has democracies and dictatorships, both benign and ruthless, and many that do not care for criticism from within or from the outside world. The worst of the autocratic regimes, while denying freedom at home, manage to get “good press” the value of which could be dubious. And within the country itself, there is always a section within the media that is willing to bow and kow-tow.

Threats come from political parties and their front organisations who find the media inconvenient. A phrase currently popular in India is calling the inconvenient media “presstitutes”.

The willing ones, ready to strike a deal, are engaged in purveying what is called “paid news”. The government(s), political parties, the election authorities, human rights bodies and other NGOs and the media industry itself, both owners/employers and journalists, have been unable to find a way to end this phenomenon. But there is a debate.

Attempts at curbs are subtle when it comes to business houses and corporate bodies serving special interests. NGOs too can get nasty. Vigilantes from political, social and religious bodies also pose threats.

Victims of violent acts are seldom able to receive justice from the state, especially in cases involving security officials. This is particularly so when new procedures are also being introduced to protect state officials from prosecution

Corruption, bad governance, and impunity are other issues. The crackdown on free media and expression is taking place amid a global trend towards politicised (state and party-owned) and crony business media ownership that makes media more vulnerable to manipulation and censorship.
Listing these threats, we have our task cut out. The CJA can raise these issues. Resolving them is not within its capacity, but it can speak out.

A journalist cannot fight alone. The struggle has to be part of the fabric of society and horizons need to be expanded. The new Secretary General, the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland, listed some of the issues while opening our London conference. Her advocacy on climate change is significant. It affects many of the Commonwealth nations (although that alone cannot be the criterion) and requires urgent action. The media, and thus the CJA, has a role there. She also talked of gender equality, another issue that needs to be taken up – and not only by women journalists.

These are but a few issues and points for us all to ponder over and more importantly, to debate and articulate.

Mahendra Ved
Commonwealth Journalists Association

About the author

Debbie Ransome

Editor, Caribbean Intelligence

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