It is a harsh reality that the majority of attacks on the media across the Commonwealth take the form not of physical intimidation but of the deployment of the law as a form of deterrence or punishment: a technique once dubbed by one Pakistani journalist “covert coercion”

The phrase embodies a range of laws and government actions, with similar functions regardless of the country in question even if the names vary, with definitions broad enough to be used to gag journalists, close publications, hamstring their finances or simply encourage a culture of self-censorshipbrought on not by responsible prudence but by government pressure, of “safe” reporting which offends no-one that matters.

The great irony inherent in the legislation and regulatory practices which constitute “covert coercion” in the Commonwealth is that most of it is a direct bequest from the colonial era. Public Order and Security Laws, Internal Security and Official Secrets Acts, powers of detention without trial for up to two years, newspaper licensing, newsprint control, criminal and seditious defamation offences, crimes of insulting parliament, the prime minister or the president: often these were devised by colonial rulers as a means of direct repression of a subject people, and as often they have been renewed or tightened since. That they still exist is unfortunate. That they are still widely deployed by the leaders of long-independent states could be construed as being in breach of the Harare Declaration’s support for individual liberty under the impartial rule of law.

Of all the laws that present threats to journalists, perhaps criminal defamation is the most insidious.  It is a technique for muzzling the media, particularly the press, which is deployed widely throughout the Commonwealth. In many European jurisdictions the criminal, rather than the civil, code is the standard means of dealing with defamation cases, but research indicates that its use in the Commonwealth often serves as a gagging tool, rather than as a means simply of compensating someone whose reputation has been genuinely damaged. Moreover, there is a sizeable body of legal opinion that suggests that the principles underlying criminal defamation are not only outdated; they also contravene the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which all the Commonwealth’s member states are signatories.

The CPU Media Trust intends to continue the campaign for the abolition of criminal defamation in the Commonwealth, started by the CPU a number of years ago.  If the UK would take the step of abolishing this out-dated law it might well set a precedent which other countries would find hard to ignore.  To date, two Commonwealth countries – Ghana in 2003 and, later the same year, Sri Lanka – have actually done this.

But there are many other laws, not least the raft of anti-terrorism legislation which has been brought in post 9/11, which effectively gag the media and it is hoped that over time, a full database of Commonwealth media law can be built on this site.


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