Time for a New Commonwealth Initiative on Media Freedom

By William Horsley, CFOM International Director

This article written by William Horsley and David Page, was published by the ‘Round Table’, the Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, on 3 November. In it the authors make the case for new and robust forms of engagement by the 52-nation Commonwealth to protect media freedom in order to make good the organisation’s long-standing commitment to democracy, good governance, freedom of expression and the protection of human rights. In the absence of such engagement, they say, the Commonwealth will continue to have a credibility problem.

The published article can be accessed here and the authors original manuscript can be read below.

Time for a New Commonwealth Initiative on Media Freedom

William Horsley and David Page

The Commonwealth has a credibility problem. For many years Commonwealth heads of government and senior officials have made public commitments—like those proclaimed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting summit at Coolum in Australia in 2002—to ‘democracy, the rule of law, good governance, freedom of expression and the protection of human rights’. Yet today the organisation still conspicuously lacks a credible means of ensuring that those commitments are fulfilled. The result is a palpable sense of frustration among representatives of civil society and media organisations who want to see the Commonwealth as a real beacon of hope for press freedom and free speech, and a defence against the advance of illiberal or authoritarian rule in states across the world.

Journalists in the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA), together with the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust and some experienced lawyers and members of other professional groups associated with the Commonwealth, argue that it is high time for that to change. We are putting forward draft proposals for a Commonwealth Charter on the media and good governance, to be accompanied by effective mechanisms for assessing and helping to deliver remedies for serious and persistent violations.

We believe that such an initiative can improve the troubled record of many Commonwealth states in matters affecting media freedom and the safety of journalists, as well as good governance more widely—including the accountability of public bodies and access to justice.

In April the new Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland QC, outlined the proactive approach that she said would characterise her time in office. She spoke of the Commonwealth putting its own house in order and ‘championing the human rights of citizens’. She identified a link between failures in basic freedoms and the rule of law and chronic sources of injustice and human rights abuses in some Commonwealth countries, such as corruption and violence against women. And she spoke directly to journalists from across the Commonwealth at the CJA Congress in London, telling them that ‘vibrant and responsible media are vital to advancing our Commonwealth goals of democracy, development, rule of law and respect for diversity’. She added: ‘You are the voice of our citizens.’

But to be the voice of citizens against injustice and to hold power to account, journalists need to be free of violence, intimidation and routine abuses of law. The reality is that many journalists or bloggers have been attacked or even killed for their work in recent years in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Uganda, all Commonwealth states. And impunity—the persistent failure to bring perpetrators of such crimes to justice—protects the attackers and killers of journalists across the world. (In Africa, UNESCO’s figures say that 103 journalists were killed between 2006 and 2015, and in only one of all those cases has any of the killers been convicted in court.)

The CJA’s Media Freedom Committee was set up this year under the association’s newly elected President Mahendra Ved, and with members from Bangladesh, Uganda and the UK, to help draw up the proposal for a Charter on media and good governance. We have taken account of several Commonwealth texts and declarations that make reference to the organisation’s core values and principles. The Latimer House Principles, adopted in 2003, speak of government accountability being ‘promoted by an independent and vibrant media … which is protected by law in its freedom to report and comment upon public affairs’. But the Commonwealth’s member states have not yet agreed on clear benchmarks regarding states’ obligations regarding the protection of free and independent media as an essential pillar of democracy and good governance. They should.

Those principles or benchmarks must also be backed up by effective monitoring and mechanisms to promote compliance. The CJA proposal would like to see such a mechanism working in conjunction with the newly announced and very welcome Commonwealth Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform, which will provide member countries with legal support services. At the political level, we hope the Commonwealth Secretary-General will use the authority of her office to make the proposed Charter on media and governance into a living instrument. Representatives of the CJA and other freedom of expression monitoring groups will contribute their maximum efforts to this work, which also deserves serious political attention if the Commonwealth’s constant talk about its democratic values is not to sound hollow.

International law places binding obligations on states to protect press freedom and journalists’ safety. The Commonwealth must not be an absentee from the urgent international efforts to protect journalists better and end impunity. It is time for a fresh start.