A media view of the Commonwealth summit: too much self-praise and not enough open democracy

By William Horsley, CFOM International Director

Proposals which were described as ‘important and timely’ were submitted for the attention of Commonwealth leaders by an expert Working Group for a new ‘code’ on media-government relations, but they were ignored in the final Communique. Even so, foreign ministers from the organisation’s 53 member states meeting in London heard powerful appeals for the Commonwealth to do more to protect media independence and the lives of journalists who face threats and acts of violence for their work.

If the prime ministers and presidents of Commonwealth member states stretching from Asia to the Caribbean had been alert and well advised by officials they should have been aware of the rising tide of demands for them to take determined action together to strengthen protections for free expression and free media wherever it is under attack. On 11 April the Institute of Commonwealth Studies hosted a public event where prominent figures from around the Commonwealth called for its elected leaders to prioritise protections for independent media to enable free elections and to counter corruption and arbitrary misuses of political power (see the CJA press release)

Will the Commonwealth honour its Charter commitment to recognise ‘the important role of civil society’ in promoting Commonwealth values? If so it should value and pay heed to the broad-based and serious initiative that produced the Commonwealth Principles on freedom of expression and the role of media in good governance (see the Commonwealth Principles)

The Principles are designed to be a ‘manual of good practice’ on the media’s dealings with governments, parliaments and courts. They were published before the summit and were commended to the attention of leaders through an established process known as the ‘Commonwealth of the Whole’, by which initiatives from the Commonwealth’s numerous partner organisations are sifted and priority issues are put forward for the attention of the leaders at summits like the recent one in London..

The Communique did, however, re-affirm the leaders’ commitment to the Latimer House Principles on the democratic separation of powers which are accepted as expressing the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values. Heads requested the Commonwealth Secretariat to work in partnership with other Commonwealth organisations to promote dialogue with the three branches of government.

A representative of the Secretariat took part in an advisory capacity in the drawing up of the newly-published Principles on the role of the media as the ‘fourth estate’ in delivering good governance and accountability. It is essential that the language of the communique leads to a purposeful dialogue and real progress towards ensuring effective legal protections for the media’s right to report without political interference and without fear.

Disappointment at the lack of any specific acknowledgement of freedom of expression and media issues at the summit is shared by the six Commonwealth organisations which took part over the past year in the Working Group, representing Commonwealth journalists, lawyers, legal educators, academics, human rights defenders and parliamentarians. Desmond Browne QC for the Commonwealth Journalists Association has said: ‘The CLA has been proud to play a part in drafting these important Principles. The intention is that they should provide a universal Code for the Commonwealth which will protect both freedom of expression and the activities of responsible journalists.’

On Friday last week Akbar Khan, secretary-general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, addressed Commonwealth foreign ministers as they considered the wording of the Summit Communique. Mr Khan urged the governments to adopt the Principles and acknowledge the key role of a free media in the democratic process. Earlier he had expressed the view that it would be curious if governments were reluctant to accept the Principles since they consolidate commitments already made in other texts. He praised the Principles document for striking the necessary balance between the rights of the media and its responsibilities to report accurately and fairly.

Sanjoy Hazarika, who heads the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, told the meeting of foreign ministers they must pledge concrete measures to tackle the judicial impunity which routinely protects the killers of journalists in the countries of South Asia and elsewhere from being prosecuted and punished. Figures published by UNESCO show that 57 journalists were murdered in nine Commonwealth states in the past five years (2013-2017). In the great majority of cases nobody has been convicted for those killings.

The Commonwealth’s doubtful record in protecting the universal right to freedom of expression and upholding the rule of law was virtually off limits at the London summit. Government leaders who spoke to the media called the meeting a resounding success. Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said she looked forward to the Commonwealth being ‘ever more fit for purpose’.

But for what purpose? That was the unspoken question during the series of meetings in royal palaces around London which ended, predictably, with Prince Charles being named as the successor to the Queen as the next head of the Commonwealth.

What did the leaders agree? A ‘blue charter’ to protect the ocean from pollution and a ‘cyber declaration’ to counter online crime were among the announcements. But journalists at the closing press conference on Friday got no answers to pressing questions about the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policies for the Commonwealth ora new framework for future trade.

One African journalist remarked that the communique listed many grand-sounding schemes but little or no significant action. Would the Commonwealth produce a report card on its own performance at the next summit in two years’ time? No it would not. An inherent weakness is that member states refuse any formal monitoring of how well they fulfill commitments.

The recent scrutiny of the Commonwealth has confirmed a yawning gap at its heart. All the talk of the organisation being a champion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law sounds hollow, because the elected leaders of Commonwealth member states are able to trample on the rule of law without being held to account by their peers. No public word of criticism of any member state was uttered about Kenya’s recent marred elections, the corrosive high-level corruption that led to a change of government in South Africa, or the horrific murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta — then the chair in office of the Commonwealth –six months ago.

On April 17 the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, an organisation set up to defend press freedom whose origins are more than 100 years old, presented the David Astor prize for courageous journalism posthumously to Daphne Caruana Galizia.  Daphne’s husband and two of her sons were present at the presentation in central London to receive the award on her behalf.

Also last week the Guardian and Reuters news agency were among the leading media organisations which collaborated to publish shocking new evidence related to allegations of high-level corruption which Daphne spend her life exposing, and serious flaws in the Maltese authorities’ investigation into her murder. Six months after her killing three men have been arrested on suspicion of carrying out the killing but there are still no public indications that investigators are close to identifying which powerful figures in Malta may have commissioned her murder to silence her stream of exposés and accusations of crimes and corrupt practices. A lawyer representing the family described the investigation as ‘completely inadequate’.

The London summit put the Commonwealth’s founding creed of ‘upholding democratic standards’ to the test. And it failed its own test.

The member states of the Commonwealth are bound by various treaty obligations and by the UN Charter to respect basic civil and political rights, including the right to freedom of expression. The double standards on display at the Commonwealth summit raise fears that the organisation, rather than championing those rights, may in effect serve to give cover to governments that flout human rights and the rule of law.

The Commonwealth must do better than that, or stop claiming to be what it is not.

William Horsley is a co-author of the Commonwealth Principles on Freedom of Expression and the Role of the Media in Good Governance. This article was first published on the website of the Commonwealth Journalists Association.

William Horsley also published the following analysis on the Commonwealth and media issues for the Round Table (Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs):

‘Public Trust, ‘Alt’ Facts and the Commonwealth – William Horsley

‘Media Freedom in the Commonwealth: making the commitments real’ – W. Horsley and David Page