St Helena’s media standards law: a threat to freedom?

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“It is no coincidence that countries with the highest levels of corruption have the most tightly regulated media” – The Telegraph

5 October 2012: A law that could see journalists sent to prison for what they write or broadcast has been given final approval by St Helena’s governor and executive council.

It comes a year after Britain’s most senior judge warned that legal or government influence over the media’s work would be a threat to basic freedoms.

But there is now speculation that something similar will be recommended in the UK after a lengthy investigation into media standards – meaning Britain would be following St Helena’s lead.

The island’s Media Standards Ordinance could not be enacted until its first chief magistrate, John MacRitchie, had taken up his duties earlier in 2012.

A Media Standards Commission also had to be set up, to rule on complaints against island newspapers, radio stations and commercial websites.

Jenny Corker and Steve Biggs have now been chosen as the commission’s first members, alonside Mr MacRitchie – clearing the way for a enactment to be approved by executive councillors on Tuesday, 2 October 2012.

Governor Mark Capes said: “The commission, chaired by the chief magistrate, will have powers to monitor and enforce media standards. Councillors warmly welcomed the introduction of the media commission, which will come into effect within the next few days.”

One of the first tasks of the commission will be to write a code of conduct for the media.

It takes on the job just as UK judge Lord Leveson is expected to announce the findings of an eight-month inquiry into the British media, following a series of scandals.

St Helena Online has asked whether the new commission will wait to see Lord Leveson’s recommendations – expected next month – before drawing up its code.

They will be based on testimony given by 650 witnesses, producing 6,000 pages of evidence.

Most editors and publishers in London are understood to oppose the kind of standards law now imposed on St Helena, because it would shackle the freedom of the media to scrutinise government.

The Daily Telegraph – one of Britain’s most respected newspapers – said it would be a “grave and foolish” move that would threaten “a priceless British freedom.”

Instead it favours self-regulation by journalists, editors and publishers. That would be impossible on St Helena, with only three media organisations.

News International, which publishes The Times and The Sun, has raised “principled constitutional objections to any element of Parliamentary or statutory control over the freedom of the press”.

It said regulation should not be carried out by “a body created or recognised by statute and, almost inevitably, staffed by the usual cadre of powerful but unelected and unaccountable establishment figures”.

Members of St Helena’s Media Standards Commission have been appointed by Governor Capes, but they will only be able to make recommendations to His Excellency for sanctions against the media.

Refusal to comply with sanctions could result in a fine, or imprisonment. Refusal to co-operate with the commission could be treated in the same way as contempt of court.

In October 2011, Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, specifically warned that constraining the freedom of the media would threaten “the survival of the liberties which we sometimes take for granted”.

He said it would be wrong, even though “an independent press… will from time to time behave… with scandalous cruelty and unfairness, leaving victims stranded in a welter of public contempt and hatred or uncovenanted distress.”

In his speech – at a human rights conference – he also issued a warning against choosing members of a media regulator in the way used on St Helena.

He said: “I suggest that the sensible approach would be to avoid all government involvement in the process. The choice of members and their removal should similarly be independent of government.”

However, the Telegraph reported that Lord Leveson and senior British politicians now favoured the kind of regulation imposed on St Helena.

It said: “On several occasions, Lord Justice Leveson has signalled that he believes the reformed regulatory body needs to be underpinned by statute, and it is apparent that this view is gaining currency in political circles. Earlier this week, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, indicated that he would support ‘proportionate’ state regulation of the press; and Labour leaders have also backed the idea.”

But it warned: “It is no coincidence that countries with the highest levels of corruption have the most tightly regulated media. Britain can boast one of the least venal political systems in the world precisely because its press is not beholden to the state in any way, either through statute or, equally as bad, through subsidy.”

Mike Olsson, editor of The St Helena Independent, has strongly criticised the secrecy in which the new media law has been drawn up. All discussions of the executive council have been held behind closed doors. He had not even been able to see a copy of some of the regulations, he said.

He stressed it was the law that was at fault – not the commissioners.

No one involved in journalism on St Helena has been appointed to the Media Standards Commission.

It is not possible to represent the views of executive council members on the issue because the media is excluded from its meetings and is not allowed to see copies of agendas, reports or minutes. Councillors themselves are understood not to be allowed to disclose anything about their discussions in the council chamber, despite a requirement in their code of conduct to be as open as possible.

A St Helena Government spokesman has previously told St Helena Online that no decision would be taken that infringed human rights law – which protects free speech.

COMMENT

The new media regulations on St Helena may well be out of kilter with freedoms that are fiercely defended in more developed countries – partly because of the extremely unusual conditions on an isolated island with a tiny population.

However, as editor of St Helena Online, I welcome the fact that the island does now have some form of redress for those who are wronged by the media, however flawed.

Had the enactment of the law not been delayed until now, I would have been one of the first to submit a complaint of unfair treatment.

– Simon Pipe

LINKS:
The threat to our free press is grave and foolish
Lord chief justice’s speech on press freedom
The Leveson Inquiry – official website
Media Standards Ordinance, St Helena
Executive council report, 2 October 2012

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