The Commonwealth as an international force to counter violence against journalists?

William Horsley, CFOM International Director

This week the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland QC, said the 52-nation organisation must recognise the weaknesses in government accountability that lie behind the violent deaths of 61 journalists worldwide last year, according to Reporters Without Borders figures. She called that figure ‘appalling’ and deplored the fact that in some countries journalists have to put their lives at risk every day to investigate and publish news stories.

She welcomed an ongoing initiative by the Commonwealth Journalists Association and others to develop draft Commonwealth principles on media freedom, and said a possible ‘declaration on media and governance’ at next year’s summit of Commonwealth heads of government in the UK might lead to the establishment of a mechanism to help with remedies for persistent breaches and violations of  agreed standards.

The Secretary-General counted herself among those who would like the Commonwealth to adopt ‘distinctive Commonwealth principles on the media in line with  the normative framework of international human rights law’. These, she added, might complement  the Latimer House Principles on the democratic roles and separation of powers among the three branches of government.

The Secretary-General also said the Commonwealth could show its collective resolve to uphold freedom of the media by working together with the United Nations to implement the UN Action Plan on the Safety  of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The UN Plan, led by UNESCO, includes a wide range of collaborative actions at international and country level aimed at establishing a safe and enabling environment for journalists and media workers.

Patricia Scotland made her speech during an inaugural conference organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London, which announced that is to set up a new Centre of Commonwealth and Media Freedom to conduct in-depth research and hold follow-up gatherings on major themes and topics affecting media freedom in Commonwealth states across the world, including Africa and South Asia.

Her remarks are significant because although the Commonwealth is publicly committed to 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’, it has been accused of too often turning a blind eye to a well-documented increase in violent crimes and abuses of state power aimed at silencing critical voices.

The stated goal of this week’s conference was to examine examples of targeted violence against journalists and entrenched political and legal problems in various parts of the Commonwealth that illustrate why ‘concerted action by governments and civil society’ is needed to address those challenges.

Two of the areas of urgent concern highlighted during the two-day conference were 1) chronic failures in the conduct of law-enforcement agencies in some states, leading to a climate of fear or impunity and having a chilling effect on journalists and others’ freedom of expression and 2) restrictions and political interference with the work of journalists, especially at times of elections, which may cast doubt doubt on the legitimacy of election results.

The conference heard that in Bangladesh 6 bloggers had been killed apparently because they had argued for secularism and against fundamentalist religious rules, and the law allows writers who criticise the government to be charged with sedition. In Pakistan, where some reports suggest as many as 100 journalists have been killed in the past 20 years, several bloggers had disappeared and were feared to have been abducted with no credible attempt by the authorities to investigate their disappearance.

Such cases reinforce a picture of widespread violence against journalists or media workers, as well as impunity, that emerges from figures contained in the 2016 Report on the Safety of Journalists by the Director-General of UNESCO. They show the number of journalists who were killed in various Commonwealth countries between 2006 and 2015 without the perpetrators being brought to justice were as follows: Bangladesh 9, India 23, Kenya 2, Nigeria 7, Pakistan 51, Sri Lanka 9 and Uganda 4.

Speakers described the widespread us of police and security forces to intimidate journalists in Uganda, including during the 2016 elections there.  A prominent journalist from Botswana described what it was like to be arrested and charged on what a court found to be fabricated charges of theft to deter him from investigating official corruption. Ian Khama, the Botwana president, has been in power since 2008 and has always avoided facing questions from independent journalists, making it close to impossible to hold the government to account.

In Kenya, another speaker said, the Election Commission had completely failed to maintain its rules on political impartiality at election time. Journalists had been placed under heavy pressure to self-censor any coverage of election-related violence or even the stuffing of ballot boxes on the grounds that such reporting might incite a new wave of inter-communal blood-letting. The result was that journalists were trained not to  report abuses on the part of the government.

This generally grim assessment of the state of media freedom and independence in Commonwealth states was also described as showing up opportunities for the Commonwealth Secretariat and for member states who share a determination to use the organisation’s common traditions of common law and shared history to the benefit of its over 2 billion people.

Patricia Scotland said one of the goals would be for a newly-launched Commonwealth Office for Civil and Criminal Justice Reform to develop model media guidelines for journalists during elections.

Provided this and other initiatives are carried out, as the Secretary-General herself emphasised, in line with accepted international standards, this could be a fruitful area for cooperation with media and civil society representatives, some of whom were present at the London conference.

This and much more ‘concerted action’ will be needed, especially to drastically reduce the incidence of killings of journalists and to eradicate impunity, if the Commonwealth is to live up to its much-vaunted role as a champion of the rule of law, and a community of nations where independent media ‘is protected by law in its freedom to report and comment upon public affairs.’