By William Horsley
“It’s never been so bad”. With those words Kayode Soyinka, the London-based publisher of Africa Today, summed up the wide consensus that emerged from the Media Freedom Panel discussion during the Taking Stock of the Commonwealth day-long global webinar on 24 June.
The event was organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) as a ‘virtual tour of the Commonwealth and its challenges’. It took place on the exact date when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting had been due to open in Rwanda. The biennial summit is postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Soyinka, a Nigerian journalist and editor who survived an assassination attempt in the years of military rule in his country, explained the twin reasons for his damning ‘never so bad’ verdict: while today’s civilian leaders in Nigeria had used the Covid-19 lockdown as an excuse to arrest more journalists and block scrutiny by the media, he said, too many colleagues had also betrayed the past struggles for press freedom and democracy by working ‘hand in hand’ with the power-hungry politicians in power today. Those journalists had compromised their ideals in exchange for ‘fantastic pay and privileges’. The picture was much the same, he warned, in Zambia, Uganda, or Zambia — and even Ghana, which some have hailed as a champion of press freedom in Africa.
So what about India, “the world’s largest democracy”, and other countries in South Asia? Shakuntala Banaji, an LSE professor and authority on media and social issues, had an equally damning assessment. Together with the growth of authoritarianism and populist nationalism she saw another alarming pattern across the whole region: that of media houses being co-opted and complicit with political forces in censoring their own journalists. Much of the media was now owned by governments or ‘under governments’ command’.
Dr Banaji described a general pattern of journalists or bloggers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who speak up for religious freedom being silenced or jailed. Those who exposed the health dangers of missing protective equipment in hospitals had also been criminalised. In Sri Lanka, reprisals are taken against journalists who report on recent terrorist cases and crimes of violence committed in the civil war. Vulnerable minorities have become even more excluded. Online hate campaigns have led to mob killings. Covid-19 has brought more censorship and disinformation to South Asia, as to other parts of the world.
The ambition of this all-day online event was to invite fresh ideas from civil society and non-government figures to address what one speaker called the ‘inertia’ of the Commonwealth as an institution in the face of major violations of human rights and abuses of power. Why was the Commonwealth as an institution habitually silent on those matters? Was it possible to imagine another version of the Commonwealth which would act with confidence to assert its proclaimed democratic values, including press freedom, and hold its member states to their commitments?
As a former BBC journalist who for ten years has been involved with development of the UN Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity and the Council of Europe’s continent-wide early warning system against attacks on the press (the Platform for the Safety of Journalists), this ICWS event illuminated how the Commonwealth needs to change to meet the global crisis of authoritarian populism and information wars. For me the event had 4 significant messages:
First: the official Commonwealth – the member states and the Secretariat – was presented with powerful evidence that the assault on press freedom in many of its 54 member states is part of a dangerous retreat from mechanisms of democratic accountability. It should heed the warning from George Ayittey, the president of the Free Africa Foundation, who spoke in a session on ‘Threats to Democracy in the Commonwealth’. He said the Commonwealth has ‘little credibility’ in claiming to promote democracy in Africa and could no longer stay silent on human rights violations. Professor Ayittey appealed for the Commonwealth to throw its weight behind fresh efforts to embed democracy in member states by building up essential institutions including a free press, independent judiciary, democratic legislature and independent election commissions.
Second: media independence must be protected against interference by governments. Press scrutiny of how governments exercise power is impossible when they seek to block the role of independent media by owning or capturing great swathes of the news media themselves. Recent events have shown how politicians misuse power to spread misinformation and rumours for partisan advantage. The pandemic has prompted sweeping laws with harsh penalties for those who express views which governments label as ‘fake news’ or criminal speech. In Bangladesh alone a new Digital Security Act has been used arbitrarily to arrest dozens of journalists. Across the world, the media’s economic fragility and a decline in professional standards have made journalists easier to intimidate, and sometimes to bribe. Some now clamour for more government regulation of the media but that way lies a blatant abuse of power. As Dr Banaji remarked, it would be perverse to grant governments more powers to regulate the media which they already seek to censor. So the Commonwealth must champion agreed international standards for protecting media independence and plurality that are set out in United Nations Resolutions.
Third: journalists and all concerned should be aware of the initiative launched in 2018 by a Working Group of six Commonwealth-wide organisations representing professional journalists, lawyers, parliamentarians, human rights advocates and academics Spurred by demands for stronger protection from journalists in every region of the world, the Commonwealth Journalists Association helped to coordinate the hard work of drawing up of the Commonwealth Principles on freedom of expression and the role of the media in good governance. The text was put forward as a springboard for the Commonwealth to become an active force in the struggle to defend press freedom against violence and censorship. The Principles drew praise from the Commonwealth Secretary-General, and later from Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer who last year was appointed to lead a High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom to deliver international action on media freedom and protection for journalists. Commonwealth civil society organisations have had to wait two years for verbal support to begin to be translated into tangible progress. It will be a triumph of sorts if the ‘official’ Commonwealth at last stirs itself to address the goals of the Media Principles in earnest later this year with the intention of making them part of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political principles in the same way as the 2004 Latimer House Principles on the Three Branches of Government.
Fourth: the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’ ‘Taking Stock’ event confirmed the pent-up demand for real institutional changes in the way the Commonwealth sets priorities and takes decisions. Participants were keenly interested in the suggestion made by Dr Sue Onslow, deputy director of the ICWS, that the Secretary-General should act as the Commonwealth’s Human Rights Commissioner, with an enhanced role for the Commonwealth’s professional organisations in holding member states’ governments to account for upholding the values and individual rights set out in the Charter. It is high time for the Commonwealth to take up the invitations from UNESCO, the UN agency with a mandate to protect media freedom and safety of journalists, to contribute willingly to global efforts in this sphere by confronting abuses of human rights, as the Commonwealth’s Ministerial Action Group was set up to do but has signally failed in the task.
Commonwealth states including India, Pakistan and Nigeria are among the countries with the worst records in failing to bring to justice those responsible for the murders of journalists in recent years. UNESCO has a public mechanism for states to report on judicial follow-ups to the killings of journalists, yet those Commonwealth states are among those which have allowed impunity to take deep root. That fact alone casts grave doubt on the Commonwealth’s claims to be a champion of the UN’s human rights values and the Sustainable Development Goals. Nearly three years after the mafia-style murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, a Commonwealth member state, those responsible for her brutal killing have still not been brought to justice. It is not a record to be proud of.
William Horsley is also co-chairman of the Working Group on the Commonwealth Principles on Media and Good Governance. He is the author of the Safety of Journalists Guidebook published by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).