Rita Payne, who is now President Emeritus, CJA and President of CJA UK, writes about her time as CJA President and about the CJA April 2016 conference:
AFTER SERVING four demanding years as CJA President, the time felt right to step down at our conference in London in April this year. I am delighted that Mahendra Ved has been elected as my successor. Mahendra is an active and highly regarded journalist in India and with the support of a dynamic new Executive Committee is already taking important steps to move the CJA forward.
Organising our conference in London was no easy undertaking, it was like climbing Everest. Starting without funds or an Executive Director was daunting but thanks to support from generous sponsors and colleagues our conference exceeded expectations.
We are grateful to Patricia Scotland for agreeing to open our conference only days after taking over as the new Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. In the short time that she has been in office Secretary-General Scotland has demonstrated that she is pro-active, media-savvy and recognises the important contribution Commonwealth associations like the CJA can make to promoting the profile of the organisation. She made this clear in her speech at the CJA conference: “the Commonwealth accredited organisation for journalists, the Commonwealth Journalists Association, holds a special place in the Commonwealth family. For you are the voice of our citizens. Your eyes are their eyes, and your ears are theirs. You see their needs, you tell their news, you understand their hopes and dreams, speak for them and make their story known. Vibrant and responsible media are vital to advancing our Commonwealth goals of democracy, development, rule of law and respect for diversity. Journalists have a special power of holding governments to account in between elections, and putting public figures – both people and numbers – under the microscope so we can understand better how our countries work – or don’t”.
It bodes well that the Secretary-General also dropped in at the farewell lunch hosted by Comsec for conference delegates. Let us hope this expression of interest will be followed up with constructive support from the Secretary-General herself and Comsec. One fruitful result of this interaction would be regular contacts and collaboration with Comsec and CJA regional branches.
It was disappointing that a number of key CJA members were unable to attend the London conference because of visa problems.
However, a blog by an influential British journalist, Peter Oborne, in The Spectator blasting the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the difficulties experienced by delegates from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Uganda drew a response. The Foreign Office has invited representatives of various Commonwealth associations, including the CJA, to a meeting to explore ways to make it easier for Commonwealth citizens to attend events in the UK in future. At least our negative experience has had a positive outcome.
We could have done with more time to devote to CJA matters, but given our budget and other constraints it was the best we could do. About twenty overseas delegates were able to attend and contributed animatedly to the discussions about CJA developments and plans for the future.
The second day of the conference was given over to general topics related to the central theme: The Future of Journalism in the Digital Age. There were stimulating debates and workshops on a range of issues. These included the impact of digital media on journalism today leading to a blurring of distinctions between print, audio, TV and online. Matt Cooke from Google ran a popular session on Google tools which are available free to journalists. He gave valuable advice on how Google can be used to verify the source of photos submitted to journalists and news agencies. With news outlets competing to offer breaking news, social media is awash with unsolicited photos and reports. Journalists need to be vigilant about checking the veracity of images and reports they are offered. He cited examples of occasions when journalists were caught out, reminding us that there is a jungle out there with forces intent on manipulating the media. All the other sessions were equally informative and thought-provoking.
The speakers at the two conference dinners, Lord Guy Black and former Maldives President, Mohamed Nasheed, gave powerful and inspiring speeches on the importance of media freedom. Lord Black spoke in his dual roles as Chair of the Commonwealth Press Union Trust and Executive Director of the Telegraph Media Group. I have read through his speech again and have been struck by a couple of comments, especially his reference to the CJA: “I know how much of a struggle it can sometimes be, but it is vital that organisations like the CJA continue to do what they can to fight for free and independent journalism in the digital age, to stand up for the safety of journalists, and to champion the investigative reporting which lies at the heart of democratic societies.” It is encouraging to have the support of an influential media figure like Lord Black.
It was a compliment to the CJA that Lord Black chose to present the Astor award for defence of press and media freedom in the Commonwealth at our conference dinner. The award was made to the Human Rights Network for Journalists for Uganda. Since a representative of the network was unable to travel to London, CJA-UK member, Henry Gombya, who is of Ugandan origin, accepted the award on behalf of the winning organisation.
In his speech, Mohamed Nasheed, spoke eloquently about being a former Commonwealth journalist himself and how this had shaped his political career: “And that experience of being a journalist, I believe has given me the understanding not just of the challenges many journalists face, but also of the crucial importance of having a free media for the protection of democracy, good governance and human rights.”
There was so much rich material at our conference I would urge all members to read the texts of speeches and reports which are on our website. It would not have been possible to hold the conference at all without support from a host of CJA colleagues, supporters and most important our sponsors, especially Google and Professor Marie Gillespie from the Open University. We owe them immense thanks.
Looking ahead, the CJA’s biggest challenge is to find a steady income stream. With Hilary Latey, we have an extremely professional acting Executive Director. I hope we will have the funds to enable her to take on the position full time. With almost daily reports of journalists, bloggers and writers being attacked, imprisoned and intimidated in Commonwealth countries the need for the CJA is greater than ever. The London conference has provided building blocks to take the CJA togreater heights. With a dynamic new Executive Committee with Mahendra Ved as President the future for the CJA looks bright. I would like to thank all our members for your backing while I was President. I hope you will join me in offeringsupport to the new CJA leadership to help achieve our goals.
Commonwealth Journalists Association