Dana Wensley: Defend freedom of speech or watch it disappear

By Dana Wensley

The continuing ban on TVNZ reporter Barbara Dreaver by the Fijian government is part of an ongoing slip in freedom of expression worldwide. Photo / Olivia Hemus
The continuing ban on TVNZ reporter Barbara Dreaver by the Fijian government is part of an ongoing slip in freedom of expression worldwide. Photo / Olivia Hemus

There's many ways to silence the media. Governments such as those of Fiji and the Ukraine (where President Petro Poroshenko placed dozens of journalists on a black list last year) favour the ban. Nauru prefers setting prohibitive visas - visiting journalists are required to pay $8000 to enter the country.

The Philippines' President-elect, Rodrigo Duterte, allegedly said, "Just because you're a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you're a son of a bitch", although his spokesperson has since said his comments were a case of "incorrect news reporting" when he was challenged by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Most overt is Isis' preferred method - the beheading of members of the foreign press. In September 2014 American journalist Steven Sotloff was killed, two weeks after James Foley was beheaded in similar circumstances.

There are as many ways to control the media as there are styles of government. Canada is just emerging from a haze of media shutdown after the departure of Steven Harper's Government. Harper, a leader who tended to control journalists in a style not unlike military dictatorships, was famous for his press conferences.

Famous, not because he welcomed open and honest questions from the press but because he issued invitations with the tag "photo opportunity only". Hardly an invitation to hard journalism.

The continuing ban on TVNZ reporter Barbara Dreaver by the Fijian government is part of an ongoing slip in freedom of expression worldwide. Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has stated he will not be lifting the ban which he sees as necessary to prevent the "wilful propagation of false information".

Censorship in the Pacific continues to be a problem. Not just overt forms like this, but what is called "silent censorship", the self-monitoring by journalists afraid to speak out for fear of persecution. While "hard" censorship gets reported, often "soft" censorship is ignored.

Each year PEN International produces a case list of persecuted writers. From January 2015 to December 2015 there were 1054 writers brought to PEN's attention. Methods of "persecution" range from killing, missing in action, imprisoned, to presumed dead. Last year's statistics show that journalists, bloggers, and those involved in digital media feature prominently on the list.

Reporters Without Borders also keeps current watch on a chilling list of figures. Since January 2016 there have been 17 journalists killed, 7 media assistants murdered, and 3 journalists imprisoned.

New Zealand is currently the leader in freedom of press statistics in the Pacific. We rank 5th in the world in the latest World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. This is well ahead of Australia, which ranks 25th of 180 countries.

New Zealand should take its place as leader in the Pacific in freedom of the press, to make a clear stance in favour of Barbara Dreaver and the other journalists currently banned from Fiji. By not raising this subject with a forceful voice Prime Minister John Key let down not only Barbara Dreaver and journalism in this country, he failed to defend freedom of speech in the Pacific.

If he's not going to do it, who is?

Freedom of expression is a right guaranteed under the European Convention of Human Rights. Article 19 of the convention states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression". PEN NZ notes that this right includes the freedom to "seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers".

A right is only worth something if we are prepared to enforce it.

Foreign media and journalists play a critical role in reporting on human rights abuses and conditions in countries without a strong record of press freedom. It takes courage to stand up and defend something in the face of criticism. But without that courage we are on a slippery slope to a media blackout.

- NZ Herald

Dana Wensley Ph.D. is spokeswoman for PEN (NZ), which promotes literature and freedom of expression and is governed by the PEN Charter and the principles it embodies: unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations.

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