Banish criminal libel laws from Commonwealth countries. That was the message from a CJA UK discussion on June 29 on Death of News: Is Media Freedom being strangled in the Commonwealth?
Wilf Mbanga, editor of the Zimbabwean, said that governments used libel actions to involve independent newspapers in long and costly court cases. Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said Singapore had used criminal defamation actions to put critics out of business. It had had great success in making international media bend to its wishes.
Lindsey Ross said that, during 12 years at the Commonwealth Press Union, she had repeatedly tried to persuade the Commonwealth Secretariat to put the repeal of criminal libel on the agenda of Commonwealth law ministers. She had not succeeded.
Martin Bell, well known as the BBC’s reporter of the Bosnian war, said he was inclined to be optimistic about media freedom. “I will be more optimistic when no Commonwealth country has a minister of information.”
Farah Faizal, Maldives High Commissioner in the UK, gave cause for optimism. She described how international media coverage of brutal repression in the Maldives had helped the opposition there secure enough space to win the 2008 election and bring President Gayoom’s 30-year rule to an end.
Two graduates returning from Britain in 1991 brought the first breath of opposition to the Maldives when they published a fortnightly called Sangu. Everyone connected with it was thrown into jail, including the Maldives’ present president, Mohammed Nasheed. In 2001, those connected with an e-mailed newsletter were jailed, too.
In 2003, a young man was beaten to death in prison. This led to protests. The Times and the BBC reported the brutal response. Later, The Guardian and The Times reported the crushing of demonstrations and Channel 4 showed people being dragged away by police. The Gayoom government was sensitive to international criticism because of the Maldives’ dependence on international tourists.
Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch said that Commonwealth countries in Asia were moving towards media freedom and away from it, at the same time. In Malaysia, journalists at the website Malaysiakini had created a space for themselves, despite threats of detention under the Internal Security Act. Young people read Malaysiakini every day. It would be a big political decision to close it down.
Elections have brought new freedom in Bangladesh. But both there and in Pakistan, journalists have been less free than they appeared to be. The freedom enjoyed by the leading English-language papers, the Daily Star and Dawn, did not extend to papers publishing in Bengali and Urdu. This made the BBC’s Bengali and Urdu services very important.
When mutineers were tortured after an army mutiny in Bangladesh in February, few journalists were prepared to report this. Journalists told Adams: “We can report only what you said [about it].”
Brad Adams said that many stories are never published because of fear of the consequences of publishing them. This was particularly true of corruption stories, which go to the heart of government and its power. Journalists facing physical threats often did not have the resources to escape to a place of safety. Or they were denied visas by countries they sought to go to.
Britain is in favor of media freedom, in theory. In practice, Adams argued, it supported the former military governments in both Bangladesh and Pakistan. Under the former Bangladeshi government, a Daily Star journalist was tortured. “The British government did not want to know.”
Elections are no guarantee of freedom for the media. Ex-President Musharraf of Pakistan tried to close down the independent Geo TV. His elected successor, President Zardari, tried to do the same thing.
In Sri Lanka, the elected President Rajapakse has greatly narrowed the space for independent media, insisting that “those who are not with us are against us.” Adams added, “It’s very difficult to be a journalist in Sri Lanka right now.”
Brad Adams is also concerned about a campaign by China, Pakistan and India at the United Nations to change the definition of freedom of expression and freedom of information. In essence, they are seeking the acceptance of so-called Asian values, which see the rights of individuals as less than those of society as represented by the government. They have also been seeking to ban what they call the defamation of religion.
Peter Horrochs, director of the BBC World Service, said that BBC news teams had come under enormous pressure in Sri Lanka. He also said that the BBC wanted to improve its quality of service by using FM from local stations instead of short wave. But this ran into local restrictions.
Wilf Mbanga, editor of the Zimbabwean, said that the ANC, the ruling party in South Africa, was seeking to portray journalists as elitists.
Soli Sorabjee, former attorney-general of India, saw the chief threat to media freedom there coming from non-state groups. They bullied the press to publish their point of view and not publish anything critical.
William Horsley, director of the Center for the Freedom of the Media, said that Europe was no longer a model for media freedom. Anti-terrorism laws had enhanced state power, increasing police rights to demand information from journalists. In Eastern Europe, election winners took all.
Rita Payne is the current chair of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (UK). She may be reached via the email address: email@example.com.