HC Deb 05 July 1939 vol 349 cc1282-9
37. Mr. de Rothschild

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies the circumstances in which the Acting Colonial Secretary in Cyprus, on 17th June, addressed to the proprietor of the newspaper "Embros" an order that he should publish without addition, omission, or comment of any kind, a statement that the newspaper had been in error in suggesting that the policy of the Government towards the Press in Cyprus stifled expressions of public opinion on matters of common interest such as the price of electric current?

Mr. M. MacDonald

The newspaper "Embros" on 17th June published a statement to the effect mentioned in the latter part of the hon. Member's question. Acting in accordance with the powers given by the law, the Acting Colonial Secretary requested the editor to publish in the next issue a correction which, after quoting the statement referred to, pointed out that it was without foundation. The Acting Governor informs me that in fact the majority of newspapers, including the "Embros," had published numerous articles relating to the price of electric current, and that the Commissioner of Nicosia had actually given the editor of the "Embros" special information on this subject for publication.

Mr. de Rothschild

Is it forbidden, then, for the people in Cyprus to ventilate their grievances on questions such as the price of electric current?

Mr. MacDonald

My answer was to the very opposite effect.

Mr. Mathers

Does not the right hon. Gentleman think this is a very trivial thing for which to impose a censorship, and can he not get a better atmosphere for the newspaper people in Cyprus?

Mr. MacDonald

If the censorship had been imposed because of that, I agree it would have been for a trivial thing, but no such censorship has been imposed.

Mr. Mathers

Is not the enforced correction of a very slight criticism a species of censorship?

Mr. Foot

Is it not a censorship when a newspaper is forbidden to comment on the statement which it is compelled to put in?

Mr. MacDonald

I shall be making a general statement on the position regarding censorship in Cyprus in answer to a later question.

39. Mr. de Rothschild

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether there has been, on the part of the administration in Cyprus, any restriction of the publication in Cyprus of references to that Colony in this House, and more particularly, to those made in the Debate of 7th June?

40. Mr. Mathers

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he is now in a position to make a statement regarding newspaper censorship in Cyprus, especially in relation to "Embros"?

42. Mr. Graham White

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he is now in a position to make a statement with regard to the Press censorship in Cyprus?

Mr. MacDonald

As the reply is long I propose, with Mr. Speaker's permission, to make the statement at the end of Questions.


Mr. MacDonald

As hon. Members are aware, there has of late been a certain amount of discussion in Cyprus regarding Constitutional reform. One of the principal means by which an agitation has been conducted has been the circulation amongst the people of petitions asking for changes in the Constitution. The methods by which those responsible have sought to obtain signatures have not in all cases been proper. Thus the Acting-Governor has represented that petitions have been placed in front of villagers by persons upon whose favour they are dependent, and that signatures have been obtained by false suggestions. It was stated, for instance, that a measure of self-government was to be granted to the islanders in the near future, and suggested that those who refused to sign would suffer when self-government came. In other instances the organisers endeavoured to secure signatures by misrepresenting their purpose, declaring that the petitions were against the immigration of Jews, on which Cypriots hold strong views.

Hon. Members will appreciate that it is not many years since there was serious political trouble in Cyprus and that although the situation has greatly improved since then circumstances in the island are such that the authorities have to watch the situation carefully. The type and method of agitation which I have just described is calculated to disturb good relations in the colony and it illustrates a situation which makes it still necessary that the local Government should retain the power of censoring the Press. Since February, when the censorship was removed from two newspapers, including "Embros," there has been no instance of the imposition of a censorship on any newspaper, apart from one case where a new newspaper, which published a gross indecency, was sup-pressed. A Press bureau has been established at Nicosia under the local Commissioner, for the purpose of maintaining a mutually helpful liaison between the Government and the Press, and obviating as far as possible the necessity for restrictive action under the Press law.

The undesirable and misleading character of the agitation to which I have referred was aggravated by numerous articles in the Press which the Administration regarded as calculated to disturb further the public mind. To meet the situation, the Commissioner of Nicosia was authorised to see each of the editors individually and he then called upon them to discontinue this harmful agitation. There was no instruction against printing reports of proceedings in this House. It is true that, when on a subsequent occasion one editor asked the Commissioner regarding the publication of certain passages in the Debate in this House on 7th June, the Commissioner, though he replied definitely that he could give no instructions on the point, added that, as he had been asked for his advice, his personal opinion was that publication would not be advisable.

In the situation which existed at the time I think it was proper for a general warning to be issued to editors, but I agree that the terms of the warning were such that they could be understood to involve a wider prohibition than the situation would justify. I have been in communication with the Acting Governor, who reports that as a result of the measures taken the situation has improved and that the Commissioner has informed the editors that, this being so, they can now use their discretion in the publication of material touching upon constitutional questions, provided they keep within reasonable and proper limits so as to avoid disturbance of peace and order and good government.

I am satisfied that the great majority of the people of Cyprus are not discontented under the present administration. The policy of the administration is to work in the direction of more representative government; but this process cannot be hurried, and in my view it must proceed first through a gradual increase of responsibility in local government.

The new Governor, Mr. Battershill, who has had previous experience in the island and whose appointment has been welcomed by every section of opinion there, is proceeding to Cyprus in the course of the next few weeks, and I have asked him to review the position regarding these matters and to let me have his views upon them.

Mr. Paling

If that report proves anything, does it not prove that there is precious little liberty left as regards the Press in Cyprus? Does it not prove that there is so little liberty among the people that they are not allowed to sign a petition asking for constitutional liberties? Does it not prove that most of the allegations that have been made in this House in questions during the last few weeks are probably true? Will the right hon. Gentleman take some steps to stop this kind of dictatorship, and try to put into operation the kind of democracy for which he is supposed to stand?

Mr. MacDonald

There was no question of preventing signatures being gathered for petitions regarding constitutional reform, but this whole movement was taking on a most undesirable character by reason of the misrepresentation and the intimidation which I have described. With regard to the suggestion that there is precious little liberty of the Press in Cyprus, I think it is a perfectly proper principle which the Acting Governor has now announced that editors should be allowed to use their discretion in discussing these matters provided they keep within reasonable and proper limits so as to avoid disturbance to peace and law and good government.

Mr. de Rothschild

Is it not quite inconceivable that an official in Cyprus should advise a newspaper not to publish a debate which takes place in this House, and could it be considered in any way subversive for the people of Cyprus to read what hon. Members say in this Assembly?

Mr. MacDonald

I think it is a fact, as I stated in my answer, that the general warning which was issued could be understood to be a much wider prohibition than circumstances justified in any way, and under the new instructions which have been given I am certain that the sort of state of affairs which the hon. Gentleman suggests will not exist in Cyprus.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that it is in this House alone now that the Cypriots have an opportunity of voicing their grievances, and does he not see the terrible constitutional dangers of suppressing reports of Debates in this House?

Mr. MacDonald

I quite see that there should be no suppression of debate in this House, or, indeed, of any other reasonable discussion of this matter in Cyprus, but I would ask the House to consider the action which was taken in Cyprus against the background of the statement that I have made.

Captain A. Graham

Does not this question of the liberty of the Press entirely depend on there being an equal sense of responsibility whether in this country or in any other country, and in view of the fact that the irresponsibility of the Cyprus Press was the main cause of the disturbances of 1931, is it not desirable for Members in all parts of the House to support the Cyprus Government when they demand this sense of responsibility from the Cyprus editors?

Mr. Foot

Is it not very necessary that Members of the House should be able to judge the way in which these censorship powers are used, and will the right hon. Gentleman cause to be placed in the Library a copy of the article on the freedom of the Press as the result of which a censorship was imposed on the newspaper "Embros" at the end of last year, so that Members can judge for themselves the grounds on which the censorship is imposed in Cyprus?

Vice-Admiral Taylor

Is it not a fact that the man responsible on the spot for the government of Cyprus is best qualified to judge?

Mr. MacDonald

I think the House will appreciate that to take individual cases out of the background of the situation in Cyprus would not necessarily give a correct picture of the position. Nevertheless, the Government are as anxious as hon. Members in any part of the House that the proper liberty of the people of Cyprus should be protected, and that is the intention of the Cyprus administration. I am quite certain, as the hon. Members suggests, that Members of this House will be very careful in their watching of the censorship of the Press arising out of the instructions that have been given to editors to-day.

Mr. Foot

That was not the question I put. I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether there ought not to be made available to Members the article following upon the publication of which a newspaper had the censorship imposed.

Mr. Daggar

The Minister has told us that a responsible member of the Colonial staff told an editor that he ought not to publish reports of this House. What action has been taken against that member?

Mr. MacDonald

If the hon. Member will study my answer carefully he will see that the officer concerned said he could give no instructions on the matter at all. He expressed a personal opinion. I do think the House has an obligation to recognise that the authorities in Cyprus were dealing with an agitation which concerned itself a good deal with misrepresentation and with intimidation, and that some fairly definite and drastic action was required to put a stop to that state of affairs.

Mr. Foot

Could I have an answer to my question?

Mr. MacDonald

I did not intend to evade the hon. Member's question. I thought I had made a perfectly proper comment upon it in the answer I gave. If the House wishes for information, of course the House can get it, but I would only say that to take individual articles and examine them independently of the general situation in Cyprus will not give hon. Members a correct picture of the position.

Sir A. Wilson

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the report on the disturbances of 1931 definitely established that Press agitation was responsible for much loss of innocent life, and great damage to property, and will he give every support to the Governor and the officials in Cyprus in taking all steps necessary to avoid serious civil disturbances?

Mr. MacDonald

Yes, Sir, and I am sure the great majority of the House will join me in wishing that that should be done.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood

Will the right hon. Gentleman give a perfectly straightforward answer to the question put by the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot)? If he is not prepared to put this document in the Library, will he issue a White Paper covering the whole ground? May I ask him, finally, whether he will deprecate the suppression of the statements made in this House this afternoon about Cyprus?

Mr. MacDonald

There is no question of the suppression of statements made in this House this afternoon about Cyprus. With regard to the first part of the question, certainly, as I have said, if the House wishes for information I will give it, and I am certain the House will consider that information in the light of the whole situation.

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