Letter: Calcutt and the Commonwealth press

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The Independent Online
Sir: What is going on here? That any British government could ever dream of introducing legislation to curb the press, no matter the recent abuses of its so-called power, is something that, until the news of the past few days, was unthinkable - especially in a democracy such as Britain with a vaunted pride for decency and tolerance.

Has the Government lost its head? One wonders if anyone is considering the effects such new press-gag laws as the Government is contemplating would have on journalists and media-government relationships around the world, especially in the Commonwealth - and Africa in particular, where we journalists have had to fight against all odds to assert our independence and operate in an atmosphere of freedom.

If the Government were to impose on the British press the curbs contained in Sir David Calcutt's report, Britain should just bury its head in shame because it would lose whatever respect it has left in many countries around the world, especially the Commonwealth. Such a move would, overnight, vindicate the dictators all over the world who, by habit, brutalise journalists and deny them freedom in their various countries.

In Nigeria, where, with South Africa, we have the freest press in Africa, our successive governments have been finding ways of introducing a Press Council. We have been battling hard to oppose its formation, since the government was bent on stuffing the council mainly with its own people. If those laws on privacy are introduced in Britain, our own government will not only now have an excuse to slap a press council on us, it will feel justified in doing so, and could even go to the extent of issuing draconian decrees that would make it a crime for journalists to publish information about public officials. Even if such information were true, it could be argued that the journalists were capable of putting such officers and government in disrepute.

No doubt about it, with what is now happening in Britain, journalists in developing countries will continue to be arrested without warrant and jailed without trial, and what any dictator needs to do to justify such action is simply to say: 'Where in the world do you find press freedom? Look at Britain, the world's greatest democracy. Are journalists free there?'

Britain should be giving a lead and not behaving like those tinpot dictators who see the press as their worst enemy.

Yours sincerely,

KAYODE SOYINKA

London Bureau Chief

Newswatch - Nigeria's weekly

news magazine

London, NW1

15 January

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