Media rights activist and CJA Executive Committee member William Horsley asks which way will the wind now blow at the Commonwealth Summit.
Do you remember how CJA journalists from many branches raised their voices back in 2016 at the association’s Congress in London? In case you forgot, our multi-national association voted unanimously at that time in support of a bold plan to wake up the Commonwealth to the harsh realities of the often violent assault on press freedom going on in many of its member states.
“How many divisions has the CJA?” cynics may ask. The answer is that our firepower comes from the justice and burning urgency of the task we all committed ourselves to at that springtime meeting in London hosted by the indefatigable CJA president at that time, Rita Payne. Our members from India, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Canada, the UK and other places spoke as one. We called for the Commonwealth at last to stand up and demonstrate the will to turn the tide against censorship and secrecy, and against the high toll of murders, abductions, mob attacks, unjustified jailings, and prosecutions of journalists and bloggers merely for reporting the truth and exposing corruption and crime.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, as the oriental proverb has it. For the CJA, the first step was to discuss and approve an outline of what we hoped would eventually become a set of Commonwealth Principles, or Guidelines, on ‘media and good governance’, backed by an effective follow-up mechanism to see that they would be implemented. That outline – to start with just a general wish-list enumerating the core safeguards needed to ensure a safe working environment for journalists to do their work – was presented to the Congress by CJA UK member and South Asia expert David Page. And the initiative was approved unanimously.
From those small beginnings a long journey has unfolded. Landmarks on the road have included the swift formation of a CJA Media Freedom committee, consultations among our own branches and with officials in the Commonwealth Secretariat to determine priorities and seek practical support; expert advice from sources as diverse as UNESCO, leading human rights lawyers, journalists from the Caribbean, Africa, India, Pakistan and elsewhere, MPs and Speakers of parliament in far-flung Commonwealth states, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS).
The Principles/Guidelines have steadily taken shape, in consultation with CJA members and a range of authoritative experts, so they cover all essential aspects of creating, in the words of the Latimer House Principles on the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values, “an independent media… which is protected by law in its freedom to report and comment on public affairs”. That includes legal protections, access to information, self-regulation, the relationship with parliaments and courts, journalists’ safety and the fight against impunity, and observance of the Principles.
Then, more meetings and lobbying of senior UK officials preparing for Britain to host the 2018 Commonwealth Summit and, with others from the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office, and back to the Commonwealth Secretariat. A breakthrough came in October 2017 when the CJA succeeded in setting up a high-powered Working Group to collaborate on developing the Principles that included representatives from a range of Commonwealth Organisations – including the ICwS, the CLA (lawyers), the CPA (parliamentarians), the Commonwealth Legal Education Association and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
Now at last a draft text of the Principles on Media and Good Governance, with wide support from Commonwealth journalists, lawyers and other concerned groups, is (we hope) close to being ready. And on 11 April, a few days before the Summit, the CJA and our friends and partners in this enterprise plan to publish and launch the Draft Commonwealth Principles on Media and Good Governance at a public event at the Senate House in London.
In parallel, our efforts to gain high-level attention at the Summit to our proposals, to the Principles and to a range of supportive projects are showing signs of bearing some fruit. How? Through the route set out for Commonwealth Accredited Organisations to put forward ideas and projects for consideration by ministers and leaders at CHOGM. The Commonwealth organisations met several times to compose a joint paper reflecting their shared views and suggestions. They will be presented at a big-tent meeting on 20 March, the eve of the Committee of the Whole, when accredited organisations and senior representatives of member governments will meet together. The point is to offer up proposals that may be taken up in the Communiqué that comes out of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
CJA members, please note! Two of the ‘Recommendations for the Commonwealth Heads of Government’ relate to the CJA initiative. They are as follows: –
a) Support dialogue with Commonwealth Organisations and others to ensure safeguards for freedom of expression (including effective oversight mechanisms) and the protection of those defending human rights, including lawyers and journalists, acknowledging the scale of the current threats to freedom of expression and personal safety.
b) Support dialogue with Commonwealth Organisations and others to develop Commonwealth principles on the role of the media in good governance, acknowledging threats to the safety of journalists.
A group of six Commonwealth Organisations is already working closely with the Commonwealth Secretariat and others to explore the potential for adopting such principles, drawing on existing Commonwealth commitments and international standards, which will be subject to wider consultation in due course. (The 6 organisations are the Commonwealth Journalists Association, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Commonwealth Legal Education Association and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (UK), with interest from the Commonwealth Trade Union Group and others.)
Now the CJA’s media freedom project is almost in sight of harbour. We have submitted substantial articles and reports for The Round Table, the Commonwealth’s Journal of international affairs, (https://www.commonwealthroundtable.co.uk/commonwealth/media-freedom-across-the-commonwealth/) and invitations are going out to speakers and guests at the launch event at the Senate House. The Principles will be offered to the Commonwealth “family” not as a binding legal text but, in line with the values set out in the Charter, with the aim of strengthening the role of the Commonwealth as a champion of democracy.
But which way the wind will blow, as the CJA’s vessel seeks a safe landing area to deliver its cargo of ideas to the assembled Commonwealth leaders at the Summit on April 16-20, is up to them. We can only say we have done our best for the sake of journalists under pressure and under threat across the Commonwealth. Keep fingers crossed for some success. And if it happens, be ready for Part Two, which will be to get our ideas and principles implemented in reality… and to turn the tide in our favour.