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Global

Arena Opinion Hold the front page With Britain – until recently seen as a bastion of free press – considering tightening up press regulation, editors in countries that already restrict journalistic freedom are worried that their governments will see the move as legitimising government control of the press Neville de Silva In a thought-provoking article in the last issue of Global magazine, Ian Beales warned that the implications of Britain’s new curbs on press freedom would be felt far beyond its shores. His fear, like that of many media and journalist organisations worldwide, is that authoritarian regimes intent on curbing a probing and critical press would seize with insidious glee Britain’s efforts to constrict media freedom as an unexpectedly welcome gift. It is not only authoritarian rulers with a history of stomping on the media for its probity, or even recalcitrance, that seem to take a cue from the Lord Justice Leveson inquiry into the professional conduct and ethics of the British press. Even before Lord Leveson had reported on the state of British media, the Australian and New Zealand governments had set up what Beales called “parallel inquiries”, even though the likes of the phone-hacking scandal that had rocked Britain had not been heard of in the far-off South Pacific. What was equally, if not more, obnoxious to guardians of press freedom globally was that Britain, which had stood for such freedom for some 300 years, would not only move to stifle that freedom, but would do so with political stealth undermining the democratic processes it so vociferously advocates to others. Ironically, the guilty party is the UK, a constant critic of countries in the Global South for denying their people freedom of expression and of suppressing the media. Today the accuser is the accused for betraying the basic principles it has preached for so long. When I embarked on my long road to journalism with the then prestigious and privately owned Associated Newspapers of Ceylon, more than 50 years ago, our mentors were hardened journalists who had honed their skills during stints with Fleet Street newspapers or training institutions in the UK, such as the Thomson Foundation. Besides sharpening our talents, they also passed on to us an important British value, protected here over the centuries. That was the freedom of the press, a vital ingredient of a liberal democracy. So to those who had, over the years, imbibed those values and come from a country that has seen press freedom being whittled down by successive governments of all political hues and persuasions, the British move to provide a statutory underpinning to its new system for the press spells a great danger to the media globally. It is not just that this guardian of press freedom has unceremoniously lowered its escutcheon. More importantly it has provided authoritarian regimes, and even benevolent governments, with an excuse to justify their throttling of the media, now or later. After the royal charter that paved the way for the new regulatory system was approved, the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka warned David Cameron not to underestimate “the concern that many of us feel in Sri Lanka and we understand across the Commonwealth because of the actions of the British government”. The editors continued: “When looking into the eyes of those your government believe have veered from the path of democracy, British prime ministers and foreign secretaries alike will need to be able to speak with conviction and surety” – obviously referring to Cameron and William Hague continuously hectoring Sri Lanka before and during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo last November. In an article he wrote in 2013, Sinha Ratnatunga, editor-in-chief of the prestigious Sunday Times of Colombo, drew attention to an observation made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission established after Sri Lanka’s terrible 30-year war ended. It said that one of the things that contributed to bad governance was the way that governments had treated media freedom. The commission identified attacks on journalists and media institutions as one of the primary reasons for the erosion of democracy and the rise of lawlessness. Now the bastion of press freedom has opened the doors to those everywhere prepared to strangle the messenger. Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist currently living in London Journalists in Istanbul, Turkey, march to demand the release of arrested colleagues and better protection of press freedom four 50 l www.global -br ief ing.org th quar ter 2014 global


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