In a major speech two weeks ago Baroness Patricia Scotland, the Commonwealth Secretary General, called for a set of guidelines for the Commonwealth to develop a more prominent and active role in preserving media freedom and journalistic independence across its 52-member states. What is surprising says Commonwealth expert Dr Sue Onslow, is the length of time it has taken to adopt such a public stand on this issue.
Back in 2003 a Commonwealth expert group published a booklet on best practice entitled ‘Freedom of expression, association and assembly’. It was a valuable attempt to set out clear criteria and policy paths for governments to take a more active role on freedom of the press, the right to information, and the media’s ability to call governments to account.
Like other highly topical Commonwealth reports (such as its work on extremism), this then languished. The Commonwealth has lagged behind other international organisations and stakeholders in moves to safeguard journalists, end government impunity, especially related to abuses against journalists, and to work to remove colonial-era laws of sedition and defamation. These laws have been used as convenient contemporary tools to persecute journalists and suppress unwelcome reporting, so hindering the ability of whole populations to access information on matters of serious public concern.
This Commonwealth ‘absence’ on a core democratic rights issue is all the more striking given civil society’s attention to LGBT and other rights in recent years. Yes, the Secretary General’s warm endorsement of efforts to highlight the on-going importance of media freedom and government accountability to robust press scrutiny was welcome. It echoed debates at an international conference on challenges to media freedom held by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, a member of the School of Advanced Study, University of London.
Speaker after speaker at this conference at Senate House on 4–5 May, painted a picture of independent journalism already embattled and suffering under systemic threats. A full report of the conference is available here.
Mindful of her need to answer to heads of governments (whose protests for a free press are always louder when in opposition), Baroness Scotland was cautious in her calls for ‘responsible reporting’. But ‘responsible’ to whom, and for whom? Governments have a propensity to interpret ‘responsible’ reporting in rather different ways to the public or the ‘fourth estate’ itself.
There are unanswered questions:
- What sort of signal is the UK government giving to other Commonwealth governments as it moves, in the face of fierce media opposition, to introduce the controversial ‘section 40’ of the Crime and Courts Act? Already on the statute book but not brought into force, it could require publishers to pay the costs of the people who sue them, even if they win, unless they are signed up to a state-backed regulator.
- Should all state broadcasters convert to a public service model?
- Does the proliferation of media platforms, television channels, electronic and mobile networks help or hinder reporting?
- Are bloggers and users of social media ‘journalists’?
To paraphrase Guy Berger, UNESCO’s director of information, although governments may not like the hard scrutiny that comes with a robust and varied press, better that than the murky world of fake news and peddled falsehoods which are particularly dangerous around election time.
One thing is certain. As governments are always keen to ‘shape’ the political message, media freedom is hard won and needs constant vigilance and active defence. Botswana’s increasingly repressive reporting environment is an object lesson in how a ‘poster child’ of democracy can regress alarmingly. Led by members of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, Commonwealth civil society is now working hard to set out core criteria to hold governments to account so making past Commonwealth declarations a reality.
In the run-up to next year’s (April 2018) Commonwealth summit in London, the challenge will be how to catch the attention of busy leaders, especially those in the UK government which is shaping the agenda. Now that Theresa May has just catapulted the country into an election campaign, on top of likely fraught Brexit negotiations, it is going to be hard graft to add issues around media freedom to the agenda at a time when the host government seems determined to focus primarily on Commonwealth trade.
Trade is not the defining constituent in the modern Commonwealth: freedom of the press (as a core element of modern democracy) should be – in this supposed values- based association. Yet it is imperilled or under pressure in too many member countries.
It is high time the wider Commonwealth ‘family’ woke up to this threat, and the Secretary General did something concrete about it.
‘The Commonwealth and challenges to media freedom’ conference summary [Pdf]
Dr Sue Onslow is a senior lecturer and deputy director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is a leading British oral historian and has just completed the major AHRC-funded oral history of the modern Commonwealth project. She has published extensively on post-war British foreign policy and on Southern Africa in the Cold War era.