By Iden Wetherell
MY thanks to acting editor Joram Nyathi for inviting me to occupy his space this week. I thought I would take the opportunit
y to brief you on an important initiative relating to press freedom.
In February I attended the conference of the Commonwealth Press Union in Sydney. This is a meeting held every two years when editors and publishers from the 54 Commonwealth countries consult together on current issues.
Although Zimbabwe is no longer a “Club” member, the “Fiji precedent” applies in terms of which our civil society and press organisations continue to retain links with the world body on the grounds that once democracy is restored we will rejoin, just as South Africa and Fiji did.
The editors met first in Manly, a Sydney ocean-side resort, before joining the publishers (who included Trevor Ncube) in the city centre for the main conference. Foreign minister Alexander Downer, who chaired the Commonwealth foreign ministers group during Australia’s tenure as Commonwealth chair in 2002-2003, opened the conference.
He made generous reference to the role of the Zimbabwe Independent and my presence at the meeting in his speech and described his “substantial confrontation” with the Zimbabwe government as a test for Commonwealth values. Would the organisation be just a loose federation of ex-colonies or would it be a force for good in the world by upholding its principles, he asked?
President Mugabe’s exit from the group was “the right thing to do if you can’t adhere to the core values”, Downer said, pointing to the importance of the 1991 Harare Declaration in establishing respect for democratic rules.
The Mugabe regime’s harassment of journalists was well-documented, Downer said, and where the media was restricted in reporting public debate it was unable to fulfil its role in society. That placed the opposition at a disadvantage, he reminded his audience just ahead of the March election.
The parliamentary poll provided an opportunity for Zimbabwe to break back into the world of democracy and make up for the aberrations of the past, Downer said.
We know that didn’t happen. Zimbabwe is today more isolated than it has ever been. But I felt Australians, now part of a multi-cultural society and increasingly part of the Asian matrix around them, were responsive to our dilemma and keen to play a role in finding solutions to our problems, just as Malcolm Fraser did in Lusaka in 1979.
The press had a tendency to challenge governments, Downer said in his address to the CPU. This was a good thing, he declared. “This is what the Fourth Estate should be doing.”
Perhaps with that in mind, the Editors’ Forum passed a resolution, subsequently adopted by the conference as a whole, challenging Commonwealth governments to drop criminal defamation, an egregious anachronism, from their statute books.
The resolution deplored the continued recourse to criminal defamation laws by Commonwealth governments and their use to inhibit press freedom. It welcomed the action of members such as Ghana and Sri Lanka which had repealed the law and called on others to repeal all criminal defamation measures as incompatible with modern democratic practice.
In particular the conference called on the UK to scrap its antiquated criminal libel law – the model for other measures around the Commonwealth which were used to suppress nationalist voices in the past and continue to be used today by some nations as justification for draconian acts against the press.
The Independent was not alone in having to defend itself in 2004 from the depredations of a hostile state. Many newspapers around the Commonwealth have found themselves having to fork out large sums to protect their right to promote public accountability.
The wheels of power move slowly in these matters but this week the Commonwealth Press Union heard from the Lord Chancellor that he is prepared to consult the CPU on repealing the UK’s Criminal Defamation Act and related legislation.
So that is one important outcome of our deliberations in Sydney. We don’t expect a stampede in the same direction by other governments! The UK’s legislation was in any case largely moribund. But we do hope that a body of opinion can be built, making it clear that governments that hide behind such self-serving and punitive measures place themselves on the wrong side in a Commonwealth increasingly attached to the values spelt out in Harare in 1991.