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#COMMENT: Britain should stop lecturing the Third World about Press Freedom. Clean up at home first.

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Veteran journalist and diplomat Neville de Silva responds to comments by British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, John Rankin, calling for the Sri Lankan government to do more to ensure press freedom on the Island.

“Across the world journalists face constant threats because of their work”, said Mr John Rankin, the British Ambassador to Sri Lanka. 

The envoy was speaking at a ceremony to mark World Press Freedom Day earlier this month.

He is right of course.  But then he went on to refer to Sri Lanka and tangentially admonish the Sri Lanka government to renew its commitment to freedom of expression.

Mr Rankin would have been taken more seriously had he expanded on his opening remark about the threats faced by journalists across the world, if he had made reference to his own country about which international concern is mounting  because of the fear that Britain’s much-touted press freedom is in jeopardy.

It is becoming quite a common trait for British high commissioners to Sri Lanka to make critical observations about the host country.  It was a few years back Dominic Chilcott, one of Rankin’s predecessors, raised the hackles of many for his remarks during a memorial oration to the late Sri Lankan prime minister Dudley Senanayake.

In fact this contagion of disparagement is spreading among western diplomats posted in Sri Lanka as some believe they have a perennially open season to castigate the host government for pursuing policies that are not to their liking or do not dovetail with their own thinking.  Who appointed them arbiters of a global value system that others should follow without demur remains quite a mystery, unless it evolves from the morally bankrupt belief that might is right. 

British High Commissioner Rankin has sought to zero in on the state of the media in Sri Lanka.  While directing his criticism at Sri Lanka he conveniently failed to utter a solitary word about the more recent happenings against the British media in his own country despite his seeming concern about threats to journalists globally.

I consider it both proper and an obligation to respond to Mr Rankin’s one-sided and simplistic remarks and to tell the other side of the story that he has carefully glossed over.

It is surely necessary that the public be presented with facts that have escaped Mr Rankin’s attention and another viewpoint which would then allow a better informed public to make its own judgment on whether the high commissioner’s view is blinkered or not.

This is by no means a defence of the British media. Sri Lanka has been a victim of much unfair and biased reporting and comment, UK’s Channel 4 television being a notable example of this lapse in professionalism that would not have got past the first gatekeeper in the days when the British media practised what they preached to others.

It was unprecedented media excesses and abuse that led to the establishment in November 2012 of an inquiry into the “Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press” headed by Lord Justice Leveson.

The media’s existing self -regulatory system working through the Press Complaints Commission was indeed found wanting.

I should know, having battled the PCC and the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times and its celebrated journalist Marie Colvin, for seven months when it would normally have been settled in two months at most.

Though I eventually won my ‘case’ when the PCC upheld both counts I raised against the Sunday Times, during those seven months and subsequently many weaknesses in the self regulatory system emerged.

That was way back in 2000 and since then changes have been made and the system tightened up.

Yet the phone-hacking scandal in which another newspaper from the Murdoch stables, the News of the World, was involved revived the debate on media excesses and abuse, leading to Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry set up by the David Cameron government.

Interestingly Rankin in his statement quotes the Commonwealth Charter on the commitment of member states to a “free and responsible media” and “enhancing democratic traditions and strengthening democratic processes.”

But while quoting the Commonwealth Charter, he avoids mentioning the Royal Charter on “Self -regulation of the Press”  which received the Royal assent on 30th October 2013 in the presence of the Privy Council of ministers.

Whether the resort to a Royal Charter, which British journalist Ian Beales (who assisted the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka to draft its code of conduct), called in a recent article “a peculiarly British device, arcane and unfathomable” and the Guardian newspaper’s editorial description of it as an “obscure device” enhances the democratic traditions and strengthens the democratic processes that Rankin worries about, might be left for a separate debate on another occasion.

But the fact is that this means of self- regulating the press was agreed to in the stealth of night and was not discussed in the mother of parliaments that is often presented as the epitome of democratic political institutions and tradition.

So concerned was the World Association of Newspapers and Newspaper Publishers (WAN-IFRA) at the seeming erosion of press freedom in the UK that it sent a special fact-finding mission to London in March this year.

“The Royal Charter may not be the equivalent of full state control of the press, but it does introduce an extra layer of oversight underpinned by statutory legislation that until now has been absent from UK press regulation.  For a press formerly self -regulated the Rubicon has indeed been crossed and the Royal Charter provisions have introduced a level of oversight based on statute, albeit at arms length from the political establishment,” WAN-IFRA said in its post-visit report.

It went on to say that historically, proposals for some form of statutory regulation have been entirely resisted by the press, and no parliament had been prepared to force through statutory regulation even in the face of the press’ worst abuses (my italics), the report further said.

Could this have been the reason why parliament was side-tracked when drafting this new system which Prime Minister David Cameron initially said “would mean for the first time we have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law of the land.”

Critics have said that the implementation of the Royal Charter proposal, coupled with the lack of legislative scrutiny, parliamentary vote or public consultation has contributed to a general lack of understanding of the issues. 

The entire negotiation process in the build-up to a deal on a new system for regulation should have been more transparent.

If this caused sufficient international concern at the direction the UK, once heralded as a bastion of press freedom, was moving in, then the  Guardian newspaper’s publishing of the Edward Snowden leaks of mass surveillance programmes conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) of the US and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) of the UK, outraged enough people round the globe.

For those leaks exposed how state agencies were intruding into the lives of ordinary citizens, as indeed they were also spying on friend and foe alike leading to some angry reactions from allies spied on. Not only were the telephones and other communications systems tapped and millions of  messages collected and stored daily but privacy laws were being violated with impunity.

What followed the Guardian’s exposure of official shenanigans was the British authorities’ unprecedented attempts to plug the leaks by entering the Guardian’s offices, threatening journalists with legal and other action,   overseeing the destruction of the hard drives of computers at the Guardian and the newspaper’s editor being summoned before a parliamentary committee.

As though this was not enough to intimidate the newspaper and journalists, the partner of  Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the story, was detained at Heathrow airport under Schedule 7 of the UK Terrorism Act 2000 when he was transiting on his way to Brazil.

His personal electronic items were confiscated and he was held for an unprecedented 9-hours without charge.

Lord Charles Falconer, who was Lord Chancellor during Tony Blair’s time and one of the barristers who helped introduce the Terrorism Act, said after this airport incident that “Schedule 7 does not contain a power to detain and question journalists simply because the state thinks they should not be able to publish material because of the damage publication might do, or because they do not approve of where the information came from. The state has exceeded its powers in this case.”

One can go on and on about the various devices including the misuse of the law, employed to threaten and coerce journalists into submission or to prevent them from doing their legitimate job.

Rankin states in his message that many journalists in Sri Lanka work under constant threats and harassment as though journalists in the UK face no such intimidation.

It might interest those who think that press freedom flourishes in the UK to know that the Press Gazette, UK, says that 61 journalists have been arrested since April 2011. Of these, 11 journalists were arrested and kept on bail for an extended period, only to be cleared of all wrongdoing.

What is shocking is that there is no time limit for the bail and onerous conditions are often imposed.

Had I space enough and time I could give specific examples of the harassment and intimidation journalists are subject.

Let me give one instance – that of 39-year-old Vince Soodin, Online News Editor of The Sun, who was charged last August with “conspiracy to cause misconduct in public office.”

His so-called crime was having contacted a police officer who had earlier unofficially communicated with the newspaper’s newsdesk with two potential stories.

To hear his story would be wonderful edification for those who see only the mote in the other’s eye.

Rankin says that Sri Lanka continues to “drop down” (sic! where else unless one stands Newton on his head)) in the World Press Freedom Index. Well it is not only Sri Lanka but his own country too, though not as much.

Freedom of Press Index 2014 published by Freedom House, US, records that Britain had dropped from 31st place last year to 36th this year.

Meanwhile in the ranking announced by Reporters without Borders the UK dropped three places to 33. The US, another preacher of morality and human rights, dropped 13 places to be ranked 46.

The drops registered are as a result of aggressive actions taken by the UK and US governments to curb the freedom of the media to report matters that embarrass and expose the doings of political establishments and official cover ups.

Rankin seems genuinely concerned about the plight of  journalists worldwide. But when countries that have for centuries encouraged and safeguarded press freedom begin to deviate from that well- trodden path and chart courses that sully and adulterate that freedom, then it is time to really worry.

That is the message that the Sri Lanka Editors’ Guild in its letter to the Cameron government, the WAN-IFRA mission and others have tried to convey.

When the one-time guardians of press freedom begin to shackle the fourth estate, with all its foibles and frailties, they provide the more authoritarian states among us with even more tools to destroy both the message and the messenger.

So those who are prepared to shed copious tears on behalf of the media abroad might hold a few of them back for the journalists in their home country.

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