The Commonwealth received a wake-up call from figures representing some of its respected professional associations at the launch in London of ‘In defence of free media: What can the Commonwealth do?’ Their message was that the Commonwealth must do more to create a safe environment for journalists to report, and it should also live up to its claim to be a champion of democracy and human rights.
The editor of Africa Today. Kayode Soyinka, said the organisation had until now ‘paid lip service’ to those values. Others deplored the fact that Commonwealth leaders had blocked past proposals to establish independent Commonwealth-wide monitoring or enforcement mechanisms for fundamental rights.
For some years journalists and civil society groups across the Commonwealth have demanded that the organisation get serious about combating attacks on the press and targeted killings of journalists, very often with total impunity.
The event was hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and its acting director, Dr Sue Onslow, called on all who are concerned about attacks on press freedom to be advocates for the Commonwealth to uphold international standards protecting free and independent media and the lives of threatened journalists.
The meeting, held shortly before the Commonwealth summit in London, marked the publication of a Commonwealth Code that is being put forward by several non-governmental organisations as guidelines on protecting the media’s right to report, and regulating the media’s relationships with the three branches of government –judiciary, parliament and executive.
The guidelines were drawn up over the past year by a Working Group representing six organisations: the Commonwealth Journalists Association, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, the Commonwealth associations representing lawyers and legal educators, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK. The Commonwealth Secretariat took part in an advisory capacity.
The resulting 12-point document, ‘Commonwealth Principles on Freedom of Expression and the Role of the Media in Good Governance’ is described by the authors as a ‘manual of good practice’, not a strictly binding text. But the six organisations have high ambitions for the document.
A member of the Working Group, Desmond Browne QC, said the Principles were intended as ‘a universal Code for the Commonwealth to protect both freedom of expression and the activities of responsible journalists’. Speaker after speaker called on Commonwealth governments to adopt the Principles as a step towards more effective protections for freedom of expression and the rule of law.
Principles text ‘balanced and impressive’
The Principles cover respect for freedom of expression, access to information and the safety of journalists as well as the role of media in elections and its relations with the judiciary and legislature, media regulation, professional and ethical standards, and observance by member states of the Principles.
The signatory organisations were motivated in part by the fact that journalists in Commonwealth countries have suffered a marked increase in threats, violent assaults, including murders, arrests and imprisonment in the course of their work.
The text also stresses the Commonwealth’s commitment to government transparency and accountability, and the importance of having vibrant, independent media which is ‘responsible’ and ‘protected by law in its freedom to report on public affairs’.
Attacks against journalists and repressive laws in Commonwealth states are ‘a woeful record’.
The acute dangers to journalists in Commonwealth states was underlined by Rita Payne, an honorary president of the CJA, who cited UNESCO’s published figure of 57 journalists killed in Commonwealth countries in the past five years.
Lord Black of Brentwood, Chair of Trustees at the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, pointed to shocking murders such that of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia last year, along with colonial-era criminal libel and sedition laws and digital threats, as evidence of a ‘woeful record’ on press freedom in many Commonwealth countries.
Peter Slinn, vice-president of the Commonwealth Legal Education Association, regretted that the Commonwealth had some years ago rejected a proposal to appoint a Commonwealth Human Rights Commissioner, backed by a standing committee to monitor serious and persistent violations of human rights standards. Civil society groups see the Commonwealth’s Ministerial Action Group, which is meant to be a custodian of the organisation’s political values, as ineffective. ‘It might better be described as an inaction group’, Dr Slinn quipped.
Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, highlighted the high risks to journalists in rural parts of South Asia, where criminal gangs and others often silence inquiring journalists by killing them with impunity. Journalists in such environments deserve better protection, he said. He also called for the media to scrutinise their own conduct more rigorously and to strive for high professional standards.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, a lawyer with Doughty Street Chambers, called the Principles impressive and useful at a time when journalists were the targets of attempts to silence them in many countries. She represents the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed in Malta six months ago. Gallagher voiced very strong concern that the ‘inadequate’ investigation into the killing of such a prominent investigative journalist in Malta had not so far led to a prospect that those responsible would be brought to justice.
What can the Commonwealth really do?
Akbar Khan, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, said he personally hoped these ‘timely’ Principles would be adopted by the Commonwealth. ‘We should all champion them’, he declared. Press freedom was vital to the values espoused by the Commonwealth, he said. The CPA would disseminate the Principles as a reference tool to parliamentary colleagues across the Commonwealth.
Mr Khan commended the balance struck in the Principles between the rights and the responsibilities of the media. Citing the role of certain media in inciting ethnic hatred in the Rwandan civil war and inter-communal violence in elections in Kenya, he stressed the need for safeguards for the media’s independence and its role in informing the public honestly.
Several participants voiced dismay that these Commonwealth Principles on the role of the media in good governance could not include provisions for enforcement or any formal monitoring process because of the sensitivity of member states about their sovereignty. But thoughtful contributions from speakers at the event produced several promising and positive ideas for the future:
Akbar Khan spoke about national parliaments repealing or amending laws that criminalise reporting, such as those on criminal defamation and sedition. He saw important parallels between the roles of the fourth estate and those of legislatures in the Commonwealth. He also looked forward to the Principles being further adapted and developed. It would be curious, he said, if Commonwealth governments were reluctant to accept them since they were essentially a well-founded consolidation of pre-existing commitments.
Kayode Soyinka called on Commonwealth leaders to accept the need for monitoring so that violations of press freedom could be exposed and shamed. He suggested that the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the Commonwealth Journalists Association should consider cooperating more closely on the basis of the newly-published Principles to step up the monitoring and reporting of such violations.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher suggested that the thoroughness and clarity of the Principles could mean that they would be used as a reference text even without formal endorsement by Commonwealth governments. They might be considered as having the force of ‘soft law’ which might in future be cited in international courts in deciding cases related to the work of journalists and freedom of expression rights.
Peter Slinn suggested that these Principles on the media and governance could in time gain a standing comparable to the Commonwealth’s Latimer House Principles on the separation of powers, which had first been proposed by Commonwealth non-governmental associations and then adopted by ministers, at last being recognised as integral to the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values. On occasion, the Latimer House Principles had served a valuable purpose, he said. In 2013, after the Sri Lankan government controversially dismissed the country’s chief justice, the decision was challenged as a clear breach of the Latimer House Principles. The new Principles on media and good governance might someday acquire similar force.
In the weeks before the Commonwealth Summit a specific recommendation was made by the CJA and other Commonwealth-affiliate organisations for the value of the newly-published ‘Principles’ to be acknowledged so that the 12-point document would go on to be considered formally by Commonwealth Law or Foreign Ministers in due course.
So the offer has been made. The Principles have won a good measure of support among those who have had a chance to consider them. The six organisations which developed them argue that they should be considered seriously by Commonwealth governments because of their high purpose. That purpose, as the text says, is ‘to strengthen the role of the Commonwealth as a champion of democracy and freedom of expression’.
What happens next will be a test of the Commonwealth’s claim that it recognises the value of civil society in promoting Commonwealth values.
For reaction to the Principles, see: