In the first of a series of articles focusing on the growing hostility to journalistic independence across the Commonwealth, journalist and Africa analyst Martin Plaut, calls on the 52-nation group to take a more robust view on these new threats. Do they challenge democracy and human rights as much as freedom of speech?
The Commonwealth has a problem: it has little credibility on the question of media freedom. Its members adopted a Human Rights Charter in March 2013 which stated plainly that: ‘We are committed to peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media, and to enhancing democratic traditions and strengthening democratic processes.’ Yet many of them have a less than savoury record in this area.
Out of 180 states assessed by Reporters Without Borders, Brunei is 155th, Singapore 154th and Swaziland 153rd. This is the summary of Brunei’s media offered by the BBC: ‘Brunei’s media are neither diverse nor free. The private press is either owned or controlled by the royal family, or exercises self-censorship on political and religious matters.’ Much the same could be said of Swaziland, while in Singapore the media is largely state-owned and journalists are restricted by rigorous defamation and contempt laws (The Guardian).
Where there has been dissent and opposition they have been suppressed. Consider the case of the Gambia, which left the Commonwealth in 2013. The newly installed President, Adama Barrow, has announced that it will return. In the upheaval and tension surrounding his election and the refusal of his processor, Yahya Jammeh, to accept the result, social media were disrupted. Twitter and WhatsApp, which had been used to organise resistance to President Jammeh’s rule, were unavailable, as the internet was cut. The return of social media was hailed as an indication that his 22 year rule was finally over.
Commonwealth journalists have now begun agitating for the organisation to take a more robust view. A Centre for Freedom of the Media has been established, led by William Horsley (another former BBC journalist). He welcomed the call by the new Commonwealth secretary-general, Patricia Scotland, for a ‘vibrant and responsible media’ and her claim that this is ‘vital to advancing our Commonwealth goals of democracy, development, rule of law and respect for diversity.’
‘Without action the Commonwealth’s fine words will fail to impress’ Martin Plaut
But, as William Horsley points out, warm words are not enough. He called for action to support the declarations: ‘Journalists in the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA), together with the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust and some experienced lawyers and members of other professional groups associated with the Commonwealth, argue that it is high time for that to change. We are putting forward draft proposals for a Commonwealth Charter on the media and good governance, to be accompanied by effective mechanisms for assessing and helping to deliver remedies for serious and persistent violations.’
The media is a vital watchdog across the developing world. In many countries it is among the last effective forms of resistance to corruption and misrule. One only has to think of the role of the independent media in curbing the abuses of the Zuma government to see that this is the case. Yet they pay a high price for this work.
As William Horsley rightly observes: ‘The reality is that many journalists or bloggers have been attacked or even killed for their work in recent years in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Uganda, all Commonwealth states,’ (Time for a new Commonwealth initiative on media freedom).
It is time that these abuses end and that the perpetrators of these attacks are tried for their crimes. Without action the Commonwealth’s fine words will fail to impress.
Martin Plaut is a journalist and senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He will be speaking at The Commonwealth and Challenges to Media Freedom conference (4–5 April at Senate House), organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. It’s the inaugural event of the School’s Centre of Commonwealth and Media Freedom, and will bring together leading Commonwealth journalists, academics, lawyers, magistrates, judges, policymakers and human rights practitioners. Advance registration is required. Tickets: standard (£40), concessions (£15).