CJA Conference 2016 London

Lord Black attacks decline in press freedom – not least in the Commonwealth

Lord Guy Black.

Lord Guy Black.

Lord Guy Black, chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, has made an outspoken attack on measures being taken to curtail the freedom the press in many parts of the world, including some glaring examples in the Commonwealth. 

Speaking at a dinner at the CJA international conference, he said the attacks came in ever-encroaching legal restrictions, and in physical intimidation.

“While some Commonwealth countries are shining examples – Jamaica, Canada and New Zealand regularly lie in the top ten countries in the world with the greatest degree of press freedom – others languish year after year near the bottom. For the press in Uganda, Pakistan, Rwanda, Bangladesh and The Gambia, the media is tightly and often punitively controlled,” said Lord Black.

Read the full text of Lord Black’s speech here:

“As for so many other organisations in our great industry, times for us have been very tough and it is a great deal more difficult than it ever was to keep the flame burning. But my fellow Trustees – some of whom are here tonight – continue to do what we can. What we lack in resources, we make up for with a burning passion for the cause of media freedom.

In that, we are aided so much by the partnerships we have with other organisations – the International Press Institute, the World Association of Newspapers, the Committee to Protect Journalists and others. But in recent years, it has been a real pleasure to work increasingly closely with the Commonwealth Journalists Association. We value greatly our relationship with you, and I would like to start this evening by saluting all you do to represent the interests and welfare of journalists throughout the Commonwealth.

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.

I have spent most of my career fighting for press and media freedom. But sometimes I think we ought more often to stop and remind ourselves why press freedom matters. I get used to politicians talking about how they support a free press – usually they prefer another country’s press freedom to their own – but very few of them really understand what it is we fight for, and it’s important we articulate that.

For me press and media freedom is not an abstract point of ideology or just a high-blown principle. It really matters to the way society operates – for three reasons.
First, it has the power to hold Governments, public authorities and other parts of the State – in other words, those who exercise power – to account. It is the watchdog of the public interest – a guardian against corruption, incompetence, waste, hypocrisy and greed, and a campaigner against injustice. Second, unlike regulated media, it alone has the ability to conduct long term investigations, unhindered by the fear of prior restraint. And third, in any state where there are free and fair elections, the free press has a fundamental role in transmitting information to voters, independently of political interests, and explaining often complex policy issues in a way which is understandable and intelligible to the great majority of electors. Free elections simply can’t take place without a free media.

Those three issues in fact go to the heart of what a democracy and a free society are about. It was summed up so well by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, when he said: “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” He said that some two centuries ago, but the reality he spoke is timeless.
These are fundamental truths to which I believe all those in the media should hold firm. But I am painfully aware that life is not as simple as that – and it is difficult to live up to these high ideals.
While all those in the independent media want to hold those in power to account, and undertake investigations in the public interest, in many parts of the world daily life as a journalist is a terrible struggle.

A struggle to publish information in the face of repressive laws.

A struggle to extract information from secretive public authorities.

A struggle to make the money to invest in journalism and technology – or just to pay the salary bill.

And, tragically far too often, a struggle to keep safe and go about work without fear of violence or intimidation.

And the terrible fact is that far from there being progress in expanding media freedom across the globe, we seem to be going backwards – and the Commonwealth is no exception.
I simply can’t even pretend to understand how difficult it must be to be a reporter in a country where intimidation is rife and Governments use the full force of the criminal law to stop you reporting and sometimes jail you for telling the truth. But that happens in a growing number of places. In 2015, two thirds of the 180 countries surveyed for the Reporters Sans Frontieres World Press Freedom Index performed less well than in the previous year. The decline has affected every continent.

While some Commonwealth countries are shining examples – Jamaica, Canada and New Zealand regularly lie in the top ten countries in the world with the greatest degree of press freedom – others languish year after year near the bottom. For the press in Uganda, Pakistan, Rwanda, Bangladesh and The Gambia, the media is tightly and often punitively controlled.
Where free media is under pressure, it seems to me that there are usually two principal roots to the problem.

The first is repression of freedom of expression by means of law. In many countries, there are harsh and archaic laws relating to criminal libel and sedition in place which politicians use to stifle debate. This has been a major issue in many Commonwealth countries over the years, and the CPU has long fought to have criminal libel abolished. There have been some positive gains in countries such as Ghana and Sri Lanka, which have repealed criminal libel. But serious problems remain. Thirteen out of fifteen Caribbean states maintain criminal libel laws – a number also maintain seditious libel provisions – and we now have the threat of criminal defamation actually being introduced in The Maldives, a country facing supremely difficult issues with regard to media freedom.

In other countries, sacrilege prohibitions or blasphemy laws are deployed to crack down on freedom of expression. In many places, there are statutory systems of press regulation in place which are used to threaten and bully journalists. And in many countries, of course, internet freedom is tightly restricted by law.

One extremely disturbing and recent trend that is driving all of this into uncharted waters is the way that some Governments are, frankly, exploiting the escalation of terrorism and using it as justification for new and repressive attacks on basic freedoms. Terrorism is of course the scourge of our age, and we are all united in our desire to stop it. Indeed, as we saw so chillingly at Charlie Hebdo, journalists themselves are often on the front line in the fight against terrorism. But knee jerk reactions to terrorism have sadly produced in many countries a proliferation of badly drafted, ill thought through and largely unworkable laws which do little to crack down on terrorism but much to stifle freedom of expression and access to information.

We have seen it here in the UK, where anti-terrorism legislation passed back in the year 2000 has been used both to prosecute journalists accused of phone hacking – which is certainly wrong but is nothing to do with terrorism – and to allow the police and other public authorities to access journalists’ confidential sources of information. And we are seeing it in other Commonwealth countries including Australia, Cameroon, Pakistan and Kenya where President Kenyatta signed into law a new security Bill that could curtail press freedom. Under that new law journalists could face up to three years in jail if their reports “undermine investigations or security operations relating to terrorism.”

The second main barrier to press freedom is the physical safety of journalists, in both the print and broadcast media. The press can only be free if reporters and editors can get on with their job without fear of physical violence or, in the worst cases, fear for their lives.

Yet in too many parts of the world, there is an appalling record on the safety of journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly 1,200 journalists have been killed in the line of duty in the last twenty five years. Although we are only at the start of April, 8 journalists have already been killed this year. And intimidation and harassment of reporters by the police and others is still commonplace in some countries, with often lengthy jail sentences handed down to those – including bloggers – who make a nuisance of themselves to those in power.

The CPJ also lists the top twenty deadliest countries for journalists over the last twenty five years, and six of them are in the Commonwealth – with Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Rwanda and Sierra Leone all featuring high up. In too many cases, the perpetrators have rarely, if ever, been brought to justice as we saw in Sri Lanka with the cold-blooded murder of leading editor Lasantha Wickrematunga on his way to work in January 2009, a dreadful crime for which no one has yet charged.

As I chronicle all these global media freedom challenges, I am all too painfully aware that all is not well in my own back yard – and conscious that some of you may be thinking: “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw bricks.” Because here in the United Kingdom – a country which has done more than any other to prove the value to democracy of a diverse and vigilant free press – we have seen a sinister, clear and present danger to press freedom in the last few years.

Since 1695 – more than three hundred years ago – Britain’s newspapers have been free from direct oversight by government. But as a result of the year-long Leveson Inquiry following the phone hacking scandal here, we now have written into law provisions for the state oversight of newspaper regulation. This has been put in place through the archaic vehicle of a Royal Charter. Unless newspapers adhere to it, they are exposed to punitive damages in the Courts that could easily put some of them out of business, something which has an enormous chilling impact on investigative reporting.
The newspaper industry in my country is vigorously and robustly opposed to this system of state-backed regulation, which we believe is an unacceptable incursion into press freedom. And not one newspaper has agreed to sign up to it. For us, it has brought shame on a country that many journalists elsewhere in the world struggling against censorship and intimidation had been accustomed to regarding as a beacon of free speech.

International NGOs and media organisations have rightly been highly critical of what has happened here, which – chillingly – is being used an excuse in many other parts of the world to introduce new, repressive laws.

As the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka – which has itself faced such tough battles to protect media freedom – warned, “the … draconian legislation contemplated in the United Kingdom would serve oppressive governments around the world, and especially in the Commonwealth, with a convenient example to maintain controls over an independent media.”  And the Guild was right to be concerned. Not long after their warning, the President of Sri Lanka began drafting a government media code of ethics for Sri Lanka’s press.

And the ripple effect is being felt all over the world. Henry Gombya, a journalist in Uganda, told The Australian that African Commonwealth countries would seize on statutory regulation in the UK and make life “even worse” for them. In Bulgaria, new laws to muzzle the media, imitating the Royal Charter here, are being considered. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa introduced a new, repressive system of media regulation, which he specifically linked to the Leveson Inquiry.

It is indeed a shameful situation which we believe cannot be allowed to stand – especially if we, as a nation, wish once again to hold our head up high and do what we can to promote media freedom in countries where journalists live under the shadow of authoritarianism. More of that story anon!

Ladies and Gentlemen, what can be done about this alarming global trend? There is, of course, no easy answer but it seems to me that there are a number of ways we can begin to address a serious situation and one that is, if anything, deteriorating. In each of them, the Commonwealth under new leadership should be playing an energetic and proactive role. It is all very well – as the Commonwealth Charter does – paying lip service to free speech. But action needs to be taken to protect it.

First, there must be an end to some of the unnecessarily harsh laws which date back to the colonial era. There is no need, anywhere, for criminal libel laws: no one should go to jail for writing something that is true. Second, the press where possible needs to establish its own effective regulatory systems to make clear to their governments that there is no need for repressive state regulatory controls. One of the best arguments we have against the censors is that we are a responsible industry, and setting up systems of self regulation is the best way of demonstrating that.
Third – and this is an area where the Commonwealth can really help – is to ensure that resources are put into the training of journalists, particularly with the skills they need for the digital future.

A free press needs to be a commercially successful press – and a responsible press – and the training of journalists and editors is a vital component of that.
And finally, we need renewed commitments from all Governments to the safety of journalists. Bullying, intimidation and harassment of those seeking to report the news should not be tolerated, and those who perpetrate these crimes prosecuted and punished. Justice for journalists must be seen to be done.

I know that is a formidable list, but with new direction and new blood within the Commonwealth, I do believe it is the sort of agenda we should be pushing for if we are to reverse these dangerous declines in media freedom we have seen in recent years.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have one final and very proud duty.

In 1970, the Commonwealth Press Union established an award in the name of its longstanding Chairman, Lord Astor of Hever, for individuals or organisations that have made an enormous contribution to the defence of press and media freedom in the Commonwealth. Over the years winners have included such figures as Mabel Strickland, our own Derek Ingram, Lyle Turbull, Gilbert Ahnee and Kuldip Nayar. The Award was last made in 2005, but the Trustees have decided to make a new Award this year, which – by kind permission of the CJA – I would like to present this evening.

The Ugandan media has long faced a perpetual litany of threats. Murder, kidnap, and politically-motivated or police brutality of journalists, as well as detention, censorship, criminal defamation, assault and destruction of media equipment, has persisted for decades. It was into this atmosphere of constant menace that the Human Rights Network for Journalists for Uganda was born in 2006, the “new kid on the block” in the ceaseless battle for freedom of expression.

Ten years on, the threats remain and could worsen, following this year’s disputed presidential election. But the landscape has changed. Journalists still face oppression, but they do not stand alone. HRNJ-Uganda, under the leadership of their national co-ordinator Robert Ssempala and legal officer Diana Nandudu, are forever by their side – often literally and at personal risk, monitoring journalistic human rights and protecting them from abuse. When police beat up a broadcaster, Ssempala led the protest march – and was himself arrested. When journalists are detained without cause, HRNJ is on the spot with legal advice. One grateful reporter fresh from the cells advised colleagues never to be without the phone numbers of ‘the good men and women of HRNJ-Uganda.’ When HRNJ activists are not on the frontline, they are educating the media on human rights and conducting seminars to raise journalistic standards, reduce risk and promote good governance.

The battle for freedom of expression is far from won in Uganda, but the dedicated work of HRNJ has helped sustain the will to win against fearsome odds. To succeed as such an indispensable and unflinching friend of press freedom is in the finest tradition of the CPU Astor Awards. It is that triumph which makes the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda so deserving of this accolade, and I am delighted to honour them this evening.”

About the author

Martin Lumb

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