The media as a public watchdog: the Commonwealth Experience

Lindsay Ross, Press Freedom Director, Commonwealth Press Union

The Commonwealth is a loose affiliation of 54 member states across the world all of which have a common legal background, but also a common language. They originally came out of the former British colonies. The Commonwealth Press Union is the association of all Commonwealth newspapers, and by default journalists. My job is to oversee the interests or freedom of the commonwealth press. Weíve been in existence since 1908. Having 54 countries across the world, you can imagine we have a broad spectrum of problems to deal with. Conventional wisdom has it that the Union has a duty to inform the public of issues of national importance, but also a domestic role involving news on one hand and being peopleís watchdog.

Today itís the second role that weíre going to focus on. To allow the press to fulfill this role itís important that the laws in place allow freedom for journalists to work. There are roughly 4 categories of countries in the Commonwealth. Those where the press wonít speak out, generally through very harsh legal restraints, I would include Malaysia and Singapore; also countries where the press does speak out, but unfortunately suffers severe repercussions for doing it, including Sri Lanka, Kenya, Cameroon, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Pakistan; countries where there is perceived reasonably free press, including Uganda, Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania and many of the Caribbean states; the UK, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand are all countries where essentially the press is free or there is a reasonable level of access to information by most people concerned.

The media in its role of public watchdog. What does this mean? Weíre looking at keeping the public informed, this can include such issues as revelations of embezzlement or misuse of public funds, also issues relating to the health of the head of government and a key area is in the electoral process. It must be remembered that these kinds of revelations must be perceived to be in the public interest, itís not there for malicious intent. The electoral process is probably one of the most important areas. Itís imperative that civil society is engaged in the electoral process but to do that it has to be made aware of the issues and personalities involved. Unfortunately in many commonwealth countries this does cause some enormous problems. For instance Malaysia which held elections in December last year. I met with the independent electoral commissioner who came to see me last month. Theyíve judged the elections to be irredemably compromised. But the point they made to me was that at no point either during the campaign or during the polling day itself did any of the press in Malaysia actually make any criticism of government or the ruling party. This is interesting as there are what could be perceived as independent papers in Malaysia, such as The Star. However, itís owned by a wealthy Chinese businessman who obviously hopes to consolidate his position in the business community by being friendly with government. Although there was no direct pressure on Star journalists. But Malaysia has some of the most draconian press laws in the commonwealth. Thereís compulsory registration of newspapers and journalists and retribution is fast and effective: newspapers can be closed down overnight. In Malaysia therefore it is easier for journalists to follow the partyline if they wish to have a job.

Sri Lanka is also a country that recently had presidential elections and is due for parliamentary elections quite soon. It has not only government press but an extremely vibrant independent press. In the recent elections there was quite outspoken criticism of the government and the President by the independent sector. Although this has resulted in strong criticism from the President and her cohorts, so far it hasnít resulted in anything more stringent than public abuse of the individuals concerned, although there is always the threat of holding over the heads of editors of independent papers criminal defamation. But it does mean that in a country like Sri Lanka the readership is pretty well fully informed of the options available. The tragedy is on the other hand, that even with that in place there is also still the question of the results of the elections. So you have a situation where although the press is able to inform the electorate, it actually does not make any fundamental difference to the final result of the election. What it does do is that it provokes the press to keep pushing in the hope that if they work together long term they will be able in the future to impact more strongly on the electoral process.

Another area where the press could be perceived as working as a watchdog involves whether or not press should be allowed to report the state of health of a head of state or head of government. It is the pressís job to inform the electorate if the head is in sufficiently fragile health that there could be question mark as to whether he continues his role. However, in Cameroon two years ago one of the editors of one of the independent papers sanctioned the publication in a piece in his paper questioning the health of the president when it had been seen on national tv that he had been taken ill on national television. The paper published a piece simply questioning whether he was ill . The editor was imprisoned for disseminating false news and causing public alarm despondency. The irony was that while he was in serving his sentence, the President was in Europe having a heart bypass.

Government corruption causes enormous problems for the media. For example in Kenya, corruption is so well entrenched itís almost become a way of life. But the papers are trying to publicise it, to make people aware. It has had some effect. The papers that were strongly linked to parties have lost credibility, very much due to the Nation Group -Ėan independent group. By producing good quality journalism that is truthful and accurate they have diminished the impact of party newspapers.

In countries like Lesotho or Tongo you still have laws stating that you can never speak out against the King, if you do youíre arrested. Bangladesh Ė the situation of the press seems to have been deteriorating over the last year to an unprecedented degree. Incidents of threats, abuse, harrassment has spiralled in 1999. 11 journalists received death threats in the last year alone. Noone knows what is causing it. But the press is now living and operating in at atmosphere of fear.

Zambia has got to the stage where there is very little press left. The government papers are just a mouthpiece for the government, and the independent press, largely represented by one man fights a rearguard action on its own to keep the public informed of the huge corruption. But he canít do it alone, last year his entire office was under siege.

If the press is going to credibly fulfil its role its important that these legal constraints the focus of campaign groups should try to abolish them. The main constraints we at the Commonwealth see in the legal sense that prevent the media from fulfilling its role is very archaic laws like law and order maintenance act or sedition laws. The irony is that a lot of these laws were put in place by the former colonial powers.

On the economic side, there is the enforced registration of newspapers or journalists, government controls of newsprint, ownership of papers where in state press journalists are restrained from reporting issues that may be detrimental to the government; freedom of movement; independence of a judiciary is also becoming an issue; where there is a judiciary tied to government it will be used by a corrupt government as a tool. Thereís also a need for a freedom of information act or at least an environment free of secrecy which can allow the media to operate so that it can inform and educate the public.

In commonwealth we have a series of instruments. The Harare Declaration is our Charter, but nowhere does it include freedom of expression as a prerequisite of healthy civil society. We have been pressuring for this for a number of years to little avail. At CHOGM last November, for the first time ever they agreed that if the press is perceived to be systematically repressed in a country it could be taken into consideration if they decide to go for sanctions Ė a grain of hope.

The law which mostly concern us is the law of criminal defamation. Itís archaic, thereís no need for it but its systematically used across the commonwealth as a means of gagging the press.

In short term the picture is pretty depressing. But thereís no doubt that as youíre getting globalisation, youíre getting a strong solidarity across the commonwealth, journalists are working together.