“Countries with a free media tend to be less corrupt”: Ambassador Melanie Robinson
On Press Freedom Day we mark a global day of reflection about how to promote a free press and protect journalists. Importantly we also commemorate the contribution of southern Africa to media freedom. Twenty-eight years ago the Windhoek declaration was adopted committing all member states of UNESCO to upholding a free press. That declaration was largely written by African journalists and is a reminder that the aspiration for a free media is not confined to any one political tradition or location but is universal.
New voices, new facts
The microphone is a symbol of one of every journalist’s most powerful tools. A microphone allows a radio journalist to speak and be heard by as wide an audience as possible. Text journalists and video journalists also use microphones to capture the voices of other people and bring them to wider attention. The UK embassy in Harare commissioned artist Julio Rizhi to produce his own microphone out of recycled plastic in a bid to help us reflect how this tool brings new voices, new facts, new perspectives, new criticism to a journalist’s audience.
Willing, able to investigate wrongdoing
And that, after all, is what a free press is about. It’s about journalists who are willing and able to investigate wrongdoing, expose failures and criticise those in power – whether in sports, in politics or in the arts. Sometimes that criticism is uncomfortable, unpleasant – and, we may feel, unmerited. The UK’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said that often he does not enjoy reading what the press says about him. It can be very frustrating to open a newspaper and see that what has been is unflattering, or worse.
Defence against corruption
The Foreign Secretary has made promoting a free media a core part of UK foreign policy. That’s also because of the strong relationship between a free media and development. Countries with free media tend to be less corrupt. In fact six of the top ten on the press freedom index are also to be found in the top ten of the most transparent countries in the world according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Sadly the bottom of the two lists shows a similar correlation. Countries without a free press are much more likely to suffer grand corruption.
Commitments to make progress in press freedom
Zimbabwe is not at the top or bottom of either list. We welcome commitments by the President to make progress on both press freedom and corruption. State action against corruption is notoriously difficult to achieve so the President could allow the press here to share the burden of uncovering corrupt behaviour and allow a greater plurality of voices especially in broadcasting. As the government of Zimbabwe seeks to engage internationally the reform and implementation of key media legislation will be a sign of the health of Zimbabwe’s democracy.
The UK itself is not complacent about press freedom. The tragic death of Lyra McKee – a journalist who was killed by dissidents while covering a riot in Northern Ireland last month – was a reminder of the risks that the press face everywhere in the world. Lyra was a thoroughly modern product of Northern Ireland’s present, a young gay woman able to pursue her profession across the political divide. Those who killed her represent Northern Ireland’s past and the outpouring of grief that followed her death is a reminder that there is no appetite for a return to political violence in Northern Ireland.
The last year has been a challenging one for Zimbabwean journalists. But in many cases they have stepped up to the challenge. The images from Zimbabwe which have filled western newspapers and television channels have been mainly taken by Zimbabweans. And the government has responded differently to how it has done in the past. During the election period and in January western journalists found it easier to get accreditation than in the past. That does not mean it has been easy for Zimbabwean journalists. But people tell me there is a little more confidence in the profession here than in the past.