Sunday, 18 November 2012

Press Freedom on St Helena

Julian Cairns-Wicks, former Councillor, regular contributor to St Helena Independent

I have from time to time covered the tribulations of the St Helena Independent, including the arrest of ts editor, its demise following the cut off of Government advertising, and then its quick resurrection. At times I have wondered whether the problems portrayed therein were not a tad exaggerated, but I had no knowledge of the history of the press on the island.

My thanks to fellow blogger John Grimshaw for pointing out to me an article on censorship on St Helena in a 1996 copy of Wirebird, the magazine published by the Friends of St Helena.(1)

The Wirebrid article quoted a local journalist who said he had to

"cover up in various ways things that have happened. People know, but we've had to try and clear the air a little bit. There have been lots of times when I'd wanted to get to grips with things, and things have come my way which I wanted to use, but couldn't."

This was not censorship, but "the proper management of a Government resource", argued John Perrot, the Chief Secretary.

"If you were running Heinz baked beans and you had a house magazine, you would not allow a member of your staff to rubbish the production line management system in your house magazine,"

The Foreign Office however, contrary to experience on the ground, assured those concerned that "Radio St Helena is not subject to any statutory control." This carefully worded statement was probably legally true, but carefully avoided the realities of power on a small Government run colony.

Julian Cairns-Wicks featured a great deal in the article. He had in 1990 started an independent news sheet because "questions and comments sent to the Government newspaper and interviews conducted for the radio have not been released," which he considered "an affront to every Saint Helenian". Apparently staff were warned not to answer his questions, and even visitors were warned not to talk to him. He duly resigned from the Legislative Council on 16 February 1996.

The Wirebird's conclusion, looking ahead to the coming of television, was that

The test of media management is, of course, whether it is for the benefit of governed or, as in St Helena today, the governing.
It also commented that in situations like this the presence of a vibrant but often wildly inaccurate "bush telegraph" was inevitable."

The wirebird article also warned that a

"'free press' could not exist on St Helena today, even if funded by a philanthropist, as the Castle would simply starve it of information.
Despite the struggles of the Independent, it seems to me that some progress has been made since 1996, but Mike Olsson, the Independent's editor would probably point out that it has been and remains rather an uphill struggle.


1. "CENSORSHIP ST HELENA-STYLE", wirebird, the journal of the Friends of St Helena, Summer 1996, pp 43-46

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