The Commonwealth and media freedom: Where do we stand?, 27 April 2022

(with audio recording), Report on the Event, 3 May 2022 

Ahead of the Commonwealth Peoples Forum and Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda in the week of June 20th, civil society initiatives reflect rising grassroots demands for Commonwealth decision-makers to join a genuinely  open dialogue and practical international efforts to protect independent media and build democratic societies. On April 27 a webinar hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Freedom of the Media assessed the Commonwealth’s track record on the commitment of its member states to freedom of expression. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the United Nations’ Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. Yet until now the Commonwealth has stood aloof from the UN plan, which embodies states’ obligations to protect free and independent media as a cornerstone of democratic societies.

Dr Sue Onslow, Director of the Institute, opened the webinar by noting that back in 2017 Secretary-General Patricia Scotland declared that the Commonwealth should join international efforts to implement the UN Action Plan, to ensure better protections for journalists against attacks and end the impunity which habitually shields from justice those who attack and kill journalists. Dr Onslow described the Commonwealth as a “global sub-system” of countries committed to democratic governance including free expression. In 2019, she added, the UK put media freedom at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy when the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt launched the Global Media Freedom Coalition. Twelve Commonwealth countries are now among the 52 states which have signed the Pledge as members of the Coalition, so more might be expected of them .

The pledge signed by Coalition member state states: We must seek accountability, working with each other and with governments who have not signed this pledge to ensure that governments respect their international human rights obligations. We must take into account all areas that affect media freedom, from encouraging enabling regulatory environments to promoting transparency in judicial processes. We must reach out beyond governments to journalists, media organisations, civil society groups, and other stakeholders, to make this a collaborative effort across society. We must build on the work of other media freedom initiatives and we will advance that work wherever we can.

So what more can and should be done so that the Commonwealth lives up to its commitment to freedom of expression in Article V of its Charter?

Zaffar Abbas (at 6’50 on audio recording) ) is editor of the leading Pakistani newspaper Dawn and winner of the 2019 Press freedom award of the Committee to Protect Journalists for his “extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom”. He said journalists in Pakistan had kept up a decades-long struggle for the freedom to report faithfully to the public on anti-government insurgencies and the deadly repression of  critics of the government and security forces, including the killing of more than 80 journalists. More than ever, journalists are now struggling against the attempt to enforce a single pro-government narrative covering foreign policy, the security institutions and the economy. Dissenters are branded as “traitors”. Public figures have orchestrated the unspeakably vicious social media attacks, especially against female journalists which are now commonplace.

Twenty years ago a wave of kidnappings, torture and murders of journalists reached its peak. Today, Abbas said, the number of journalists’ deaths is down, but pressures on media workers to suppress reporting and bow to the authorities are now more intense than ever. Killing journalists had been “bad for Pakistan’s international reputation” so instead there was now an attempt to “kill journalism”. The authorities were also responsible for a “culture of impunity”, whereby in all but one or two cases those responsible for abducting and killing journalists had got away with it.

Pakistani journalists had managed to show solidarity by uniting in the face of violence and harassment and rejecting the authorities’ attempts to sow divisions among them. But Abbas said that for the first time he now felt pessimistic about the future. The press freedom situation was equally depressing in the other countries of South Asia. At one time India had inspired hope in that respect among Pakistani journalists, but now the government there had instrumentalised ultra-nationalism to suppress criticism, and the conditions for media independence in India were equally bad. And in Bangladesh government repression was so harsh that very few journalists and media there were capable of voicing honest criticism of those in power.

So what should be done? Zaffar Abbas called for the “collective voice of the international fraternity of journalists” to make itself heard loudly, and for decisive action by the Commonwealth as an international body. The Commonwealth, he said, was an organisation which people in places like Pakistan and India could relate to for historical reasons. It should exert “moral pressure” on its member states, including those in Africa and Asia, to protect journalists against violence and threats, challenge oppressive media laws and regulations, take action against government-backed Internet trolls, and put an end to impunity. Zaffar Abbas called on Commonwealth decision-makers to heed the advice and arguments they were receiving from William Horsley of the CJA and others who had put forward the Commonwealth Principles on the Media and Good Governance. He urged the Commonwealth to adopt Principles that would match the urgent needs he had described. If so, “it could make a very big difference”.

William Horsley, (at 18’45), executive committee member of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, former BBC correspondent, and international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media. His overriding message to Commonwealth decision-makers, he said, was an invitation to them be part of a genuine action-oriented dialogue with civil society voices on the burning issues raised at this event. He believed that acceptance of  the need for a change of culture and effective engagement would give the Commonwealth a new and refreshing sense of purpose.

Law Ministers of the member states are due to discuss the Commonwealth’s future course with regard to protecting freedom of expression and the role of the media in good governance at a meeting before the end of 2022. William appealed for them to give positive consideration to these proposals, which were the result of several years of intense collaboration and sometimes frustrating dealings between Commonwealth-accredited professional organisations and the “institutional Commonwealth” in the form of member states representatives and the Secretariat. He asked for Law Ministers and their officials to reciprocate in the spirit of partnership with grassroots organisations which the Commonwealth is proud to claim as part of the DNA of the organisation.

William cited the recent call for a fresh approach by the Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation, Anne Gallagher, who wrote: Unhappily, the Commonwealth marches in lockstep with the world trend towards more authoritarianism and the backsliding of democratic regimes. Over 80 percent of the Commonwealth’s 2.4 billion citizens are living in what CIVICUS classified as repressed societies, where public protest is banned or severely curtailed, human rights defenders and journalists are intimidated and detained, where laws censor vital information and restrict media freedom, and where institutions of governance protect those who abuse their power .

“I have been impressed”, William said, “by the vigour and commitment to the Commonwealth’s declared values of many Commonwealth-affiliated organisations, such as the Human Rights Initiative and its important work to combat modern slavery, and the ceaseless efforts of the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges Association to monitor and call out abuses against the independence of the judiciary and fair legal process in member states.”

But evidence of the good faith of the institutional Commonwealth – meaning the member states and the Secretariat – has been lacking, he said. The one Commonwealth institution which has a specific  mandate to take joint action to curb breaches of the Commonwealth’s agreed fundamental values– including “systematic constraints on civil society and the media” — is the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, known as CMAG. But CMAG has been  notably silent in the face of the systematic repressions and abuses described just now by Zaffar Abbas and monitored year after year in great detail by UNESCO and professional organisations such as RSF, Reporters Without Borders.  As an eminent lawyer colleague observed, “CMAG is the Ministerial Action Group but should be described as a Ministerial Inaction Group.”

After five years of efforts by the Commonwealth Journalists Association, joined by Commonwealth lawyers, parliamentarians and other professional associations, the “institutional Commonwealth” took a significant step forward last year. At a meeting of Commonwealth country Senior Law Ministry officials in early 2021 – and thanks to representations by some helpful states — the Secretariat received a mandate to host an online conference of a so-called Expert Working Group made up of more than 20 self-selecting member states. The mandate was “as a priority, to examine the substantive issues” which were first set out in the Media Principles drawn up by six Commonwealth-accredited organisations in 2018; and “to make recommendations to Ministers.”

The state delegates met behind closed doors over several months last year as they examined and in some cases revised the document enshrining the Media Principles. Representatives of some accredited organisations and a number of other independent experts joined the online meeting in a strictly advisory role.  Under the terms laid down by the organisation, William said, he and others were not free to speak about the issues that may have arisen regarding controversial points in the wording of the text. However, he said the things Zaffar Abbas spoke of as the greatest threats to free societies and free expression are often those which bring out strong resistance from certain state authorities. Zaffar spoke of the necessity of reforming arbitrary and oppressive laws; mechanisms and peer pressure by democratic governments to help protect journalists and human rights defenders including lawyers from violent attacks, arbitrary arrest and prison;  and judicial independence and an end to the scourge of impunity.

Two points were now clear: First, the schedule for a meeting of Law Ministers to consider what to do about the Principles has been postponed to the second half of 2022 — after the Commonwealth summit in Kigali. The outcome text could not therefore be made public yet. Secondly, it was of crucial importance that any principles that are adopted as a “Commonwealth standard” should properly reflect its Charter commitments to the high standards that prevail in international law and UN Resolutions. The most valuable prize for the Commonwealth would be for the Commonwealth to emerge as a genuine force which is seen to take effective actions to oppose authoritarianism and protect the role of journalists and free and independent media.

So the next several weeks or months would provide a sort of breathing space for deep thought. William appealed for the time to be used by all those of goodwill – member states and civil society or media alike – to make a reality of the open dialogue which civil society voices now propose. He put forward these specific and practical suggestions for actions on which he said the Commonwealth was eminently well-placed to show leadership:-

# UNESCO has asked the Commonwealth, along with the African Union, the Council of Europe, the Francophonie and others, to take an active part in its forum of Inter-Governmental Organisations concerned with journalists safety and impunity, called the “Light-Touch Task Force”. Now was the time to say Yes to that.

# The Commonwealth was well-placed to assist its member states to respond promptly and fully to requests from UNESCO for effective investigations and information about progress following the killings of journalists. That record is now very poor, with an impunity rate as high as 96 percent in cases of journalists’ deaths in Commonwealth countries.

# The Commonwealth sees itself a champion of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The Secretariat, with the backing of member states and perhaps of the Media Freedom Coalition and UNESCO, could coordinate the delivery of technical assistance to its members to monitor and send report to the UN about the number of serious attacks and abuses against journalists — as all states are expected to do under the targets set out for SDG 16, the Goal which deals with accountable institutions and access to justice and information.

This year, the 10th anniversary of the UN Action Plan on journalists’ safety, will be an excellent moment to make these moves in public. Major international events are planned later part in the year. The Commonwealth Foundation has also called for a positive and forward-looking discussion on the Commonwealth and Freedom of Expression at the Peoples Forum in Kigali on June 22nd .

William ended by saying: “Civil society promises to lend its expertise, resources and networks to help the institutional Commonwealth to change in this direction. The Great Debate has started. Please open that door and let the dialogue begin!”