Britain recently led the cavalry against Zimbabwe's new media act. But how does it square with Britain's own Treason Felony Act 1848, which threatens anyone advocating the downfall of the monarchy to be "deported for the term of his or her natural life"?
If recent reports by the "international" media are to be believed, Zimbabwe is the only country to have thought about introducing a "draconian" law on access to information, protecdon of privacy and freedom of expression.
It is all very good that any attempt by any country to muzzle the media and free speech is attacked. But for the attack to be meaningful and noble, the critics themselves must not be doing the same thing in their own countries. In fact, they must have clean hands.
Sadly, in the case of Zimbabwe's new bill, some of the critics, particularly Britain, did not, and do not, have clean hands.
For proof, you don't have to look beyond the 6 December 2000 issue of The Guardian (London). On the front page of that day's issue (reproduced here for easy reference), the paper reported:
"The Treason Felony Act 1848... threatens that anyone imagining or publishing anything which might lead to the Queen's downfall should be deported for life.
"Today and over the next few days, [this] paper is running a number of articles advocating republicanism [in Britain], despite...[the] outdated statute, the Treason Felony Act 1848, which threatens anyone doing so with deportation for the term of his or her natural life.'"
And then came the rub: "The paper's editor, Alan Rusbridger," The Guardian revealed, "wrote last week to the attorney general, Lord Williams of Mostyn, asking for an assurance that he will not be prosecuted, given that he has no intention of advocating overthrow of the monarchy by force.
"In his letter, [the editor] argued that the Treason Felony Act breaches Article 10 of the European Convention, the right to freedom of expression.
"He suggested the attorney general might ask the high court to reinterpret the Treason Felony Act so that only calls to overthrow the monarchy by violence would be an offence. He offered the paper's support in the application.
"Lord Williams replied:
'I hope you understand that neither David Calvert-Smith [the director of public prosecutions] nor I can give you an assurance regarding whether or not a prosecution or other action will be taken. You are asking me to take action which sanctions in advance conduct which may be criminal. You should take your own legal advice, then decide for yourself whether you will follow it'."
Lord Williams was writing in the year of our Lord 2000. His message was clear. The Treason Felony Act maybe 153 years old, but you break it at your own peril.
So The Guardian, as obedient to the law as all the other sections of the British media, had to wait until Britain had incorporated the European Human Rights Act into its own law in October 2000, before daring to publish its series advocating republicanism (or the downfall of the monarchy).
"The Human Rights Act," the paper even added for good measure, "gives UK judges power for the first time to reinterpret statutes to make them compatible 'so far as possible' with the European Convention."
In effect, instead of going ahead to publish damn the consequences (a huge lesson for African journalists), The Guardian hid behind the protection afforded by the European Convention before publishing the series. And this was in the year 2000! If it had published the articles before Britain incorporated the European Human Rights Act into its law, The Guardian and its editor could have been strung up, under the Treason Felony Act 1848.
That was what the attorney general, Lord Williams, said in so many words. The director of public prosecutions, now knowing that the law is nor on his side, has remained silent since the publication.
In fact, The Guardian did not wait for him or the attorney general to strike first. The best defence is to attack, so The Guardian took the fight to the two gentlemen, by going to court on 16 February 2001 to challenge the Treason Felony Act.
On that day, the paper reported: "The Guardian will make legal history today when it launches a high court challenge under the Human Rights Act to a 153-year-old law which threatens anyone calling in print for abolition of the monarchy with life imprisonment.
"The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, and columnist Polly Toynbee will file a claim at the high court in London today against the attorney general, Lord Williams of Mostyn, and the director of public prosecutions, David Clavert-Smith.
"The case is the first to be brought purely under the Human Rights Act since it came into force last October... The claim alleges that the 1848 Treason Felony Act violates Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to free speech.
"Mr Rusbridger said: 'The Treason Felony Act is one more piece of archaic legal nonsense surrounding the monarchy. People may say it's meaningless but meaningless laws are bad laws. Like the Act of Settlement, it's about time it was scrapped'."
The Act of Settlement 1701 "remains", according to The Guardian, "the crucial cornerstone of the British constitution, exercising an extraordinary hold over the monarchy and imposing limitations designed to tackle the imperatives of a political crisis at the dawn of the 18th century. But it is scarcely relevant to the 21st."
The 301-year-old Act "bans Roman Catholics and other non-Protestants from succession to the British throne".
But despite concerns that the Act "clashes with the European Human Rights Act" and thus be expunged from the UK's statute book, the law is still in force.
And it still bans British MPs from debating "the conduct of the sovereign, the heir to the throne or other members of the royal family. An MP who raised the question of whether Britain might be better off as a republic could be sent to the Tower [of London]", reported The Guardian on 6 December 2000.
Saint-land is not saintly afterall.
'Why bother to muzzle sheep?'
"Publish and be damned" appears to be the foundation stone of African journalism. "National security" and "national interest"? Never heard of it. Yet, the reverse is true in Western journalism. As a lesson to us all in Africa (both journalists and non-journalists), here is a selection of what British journalists themselves have written about their own media laws, and the Western media's attitude to the interests of their countries and governments.
Andrew Grice, The independent, 3 January 2002: The official watchdog on freedom of information [in Britain] has accused the government of becoming more secretive despite its repeated public pledges to bring in more openness.
Sir Michael Buckley, the parliamentary ombudsman, who monitors the government's code of practice on access to official information, said: "We have noticed a tendency for departments to take a harder line and be less co-operative. It is fairly uphill work with departments."
He also criticised the cabinet's decision to delay the introduction of its much-heralded Freedom of Information Act from next summer until 2005.
Hugh Stephenson, Index on Censorship, June 1997: There are some 50 major pieces of legislation on the statute book in the UK whose effect, expressly or in practice, is to gag journalists. The latest example is the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act. In time, this could become a partial and back door Protection of Privacy Act.
A cloud much larger than a man's hand hangs over the media in the shape of next year's Data Protection Bill, designed to implement by 1998 the corresponding EU directive.
The bill would turn the present Data Protection Registrar into a Commissioner with new powers to require those holding data to inform the individuals concerned what data is being held about them and why; and to introduce safeguards -- like an obligation to obtain prior consent over the use of sensitive personal information -- with wider compensation for those who can show that the regulations have been broken in their case.
In its present form, the legislation would signal the end of any kind of investigative journalism in the UK.
Moyra Grant, Serendipity website, 1998: How free are the press and broadcasting media in Britain? The external constraints are quite well known -- though their range and scope may not be... Other legislative constraints include the Official Secrets Acts, Prevention of Terrorism Act, Police and Criminal Evidence Act, Contempt of Court Act, and laws relating to obscenity, libel, race relations, sedition, incitement to disaffection and treason -- amongst others.
To these can be added the many instances of direct government censorship -- notably during the Falklands and Gulf conflicts -- and the informal but sometimes intense pressures of advertisers and distributors.
The most insidious form of political control on the media, however, is not external constraint but self-censorship.... The most institutionalised method of self-censorship is the D-Notice (short for Defence Notice). It is a unique peacetime arrangement of voluntary suppression of certain categories of information on the advice -- not orders -- of the government.
The system was established in 1912 and continues to this day... It is strongly requested that there should be no elaboration, nor confirmation or denial, of the accuracy of items published elsewhere, without reference to the [D Notice] secretary.
There are currently eight general [kinds of] D-Notices (which, incidentally, used to be secret information themselves, but were made public in 1982):
Defence plans, operational capability, state of readiness and training.
Nuclear weapons and equipment.
Radio and radar transmissions.
Cyphers and communications.
British security and intelligence services.
War precautions and civil defence.
Photography etc of defence establishments and installations.
When in the...