“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,” said Lord Black. He explained further: “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.”
He further said that those three issues in fact go to the heart of what a democracy and a free society are about. He said this 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.
Lord Black bemoaned a lack of 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,” he said. The second main barrier to press freedom, he added, was 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 line of duty in the last 25 years. Although we are only at the start of April, eight 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 20 deadliest countries for journalists over the last 25 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 to be charged.