CHOGM Commonwealth News Events

The Commonwealth summit: too much self-praise, not enough democracy

By William Horsley

‘Important and timely’ proposals submitted to Commonwealth leaders by an expert Working Group for a new ‘code’ on media-government relations were ignored in the final Communique. But foreign ministers 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.

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.

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 the established process known as the ‘Commonwealth of the Whole’.

The Communique did, however, re-affirm their 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.’

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.

A doubtful record

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.

Failing the test

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.

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. The views expressed in this article are his own. 

  • See the 12 Commonwealth Principles in full elsewhere in the News section. 

About the author

Cheryl Dorall

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