The decisive moment was to be a virtual meeting of Commonwealth Law Ministers in March to consider adopting a set of principles on ‘media and good governance’, with freedom of expression, the role of the media and journalists’ safety at their core. But on 15 February the CJA was abruptly informed that the ministers’ meeting is being postponed for at least six months.
It is now due to take place in the last quarter of 2022 – that is, after June’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda. The ministerial meeting may be held in person, in a location yet to be decided. The change of plan raises fresh questions about the strength of commitment among member states, and how real are the prospects for the Commonwealth to take its first institutional step to defend media freedom and independent reporting. Meanwhile, there is little concrete to show for all this effort.
The story so far: last year, after years of official evasion and foot-dragging, Commonwealth Law Ministers gave the Secretariat a mandate to convene a forum for member state representatives to consider the “substantive issues” behind the Media Principles text that the CJA and five other Commonwealth Organisations jointly published here in 2018, and to “make recommendations” back to Law Ministers. The so-called inter-governmental “Expert Working Group” (EWG) met in series of tightly structured video conference meetings at least nine times between August and November last year. Delegates from over 20 Commonwealth countries took part.
I and David Page, representing the CJA, were among a dozen non-government experts invited to attend the EWG meetings. Our circumscribed role – we were told – was to provide advice “as needed” and to help clarify points of law and good practice in terms of international standards of protection for free expression and the media. The meetings were held on a confidential basis, meaning that participants may not reveal what was said by any particular speaker; and to date the outcome document, including numerous revisions, has still not been made public.