Reporting back from the front lines

Rita Payne

Malta played host to the ninth conference of the Commonwealth Journalists Association where delegates gathered to discuss democracy and the rapidly changing role of the media and technology.

More than 80 delegates took part in the conference of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) in Malta from 29 January to 2 February which explored the theme of ‘Journalism and democracy in the New Media age’. Dr Stephen Quinn, digital development editor for the South China Morning Post, updated delegates on developments in mobile phone technology. Other speakers looked at how interconnectivity can work for journalists across the Commonwealth but raised the threat of Internet censorship.

Panellists at a session entitled ‘Matters of Life and Death’ spoke passionately about the dangers faced by journalists reporting from crisis zones. Pakistan has recently been rated the most dangerous country for journalists; Zaffar Abbas, editor of Pakistan’s Dawn group of newspapers, described how he took a different route to his office every morning to avoid being the target of any one of a number of groups that wish to silence the media. Jon Williams, BBC World News editor, emphasised the need for training for all those deployed in the field, saying, “When you’re in the grave, no one makes any distinction.”

The holding of the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka in 2013 was presented as an opportunity for the CJA to push for media freedom in the country.

Former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, Raymond Louw, outlined the implications of South Africa’s secrecy bill. He described it and other developments as an “acceleration of a tendency towards hostility towards the press”. Other speakers gave examples of moves in their own countries to prevent them from reporting negative or sensitive stories.

Discussion topics ranged from press coverage of disasters, climate change, sports and scandal to lessons on media ethics. Former UK solicitor general, Vera Baird, outlined the background to the Leveson Inquiry into News International and the phone hacking controversy, exploring the role the newspapers had played, both as part of the scandal and as the ones who exposed it. She urged the CJA to put in a submission to the inquiry to ensure awareness of the “deleterious effect” the findings could have on the very different press around the Commonwealth.

Senator Hugh Segal, making his first official speech as Canada’s newly appointed Special Envoy for Commonwealth Renewal, told delegates, “The Commonwealth – through you, its journalists – should speak up and speak out. Too much silence in the face of too much injustice may lead to the following question: What makes silence the better option? Not speaking out is never the right option.”

About the author:

Rita Payne is President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association


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