Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, reports on a conference urging the governments of Commonwealth member states to take concrete action and put the issue of press freedom high on their list of priorities. 

How serious is the Commonwealth about media freedom? This was the question we attempted to answer at a special event in Parliament on Tuesday evening (21 January), organised by Dr Sue Onslow of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) in partnership with the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA), the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Human Rights and on Media Freedom, and the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (BGIPU).

Chairing it was John Wittingdale, a former chair of the Commons Culture Media and Sport Select Committee. On the panel we had Amal Clooney, the UK’s Special Envoy on Media Freedom, Rebecca Vincent the UK Bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, Akbar Khan the former secretary general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), and Papa Owusu-Ankowah the Ghanaian High Commissioner to the UK. As one might expect from such a distinguished group of speakers, they provided ample food for thought.

The Commonwealth Charter, signed in 2013, affirmed its members’ commitment to ‘peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media’. As it stands, the statement is far from unequivocal. In politics, ‘free and’ tends to mean ‘free but’, and governments rarely see eye-to-eye with journalists about what constitutes ‘responsible’ reporting.

It could be argued that the mark of an open society is its willingness to tolerate a ‘free and irresponsible’ media. And one might hope that, given his record in Fleet Street, Boris Johnson would feel the same. In fact, the UK and Canada had already taken up the cause of media freedom before Johnson assumed office. The two governments jointly organised a major international conference in London on the issue in July last year and invited states around the world to subscribe to a Global Pledge on Media Freedom.

So far, however, only four Commonwealth countries have done so. Meanwhile, however, the Committee to Protect Journalists listed the Commonwealth countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria as among the 13 states in the world with the worst records for prosecuting the murderers of journalists.

Yet as Akbar Khan noted, it would be wrong to see this as a simple North versus South issue. The UK was only in 33rd place in the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index. Above it, at 27th, was Ghana, which, as its high commissioner noted, has made important strides towards removing restrictions on press freedom since the 1990s. In both the UK and Australia, security-related legislation hampers the free reporting of certain issues. Earlier this month, the high court in Trinidad and Tobago struck down sections of the colonial-era Sedition Act, on the grounds that they imposed unreasonable restrictions on free speech (a reminder that the legacies of British imperialism still play a part in this story). In reality, few Commonwealth countries can afford to be complacent.

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies was part of a working group, along with the CJA, CPA, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the Commonwealth Legal Education Association and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, which in April 2018 produced a set of principles for Media Freedom in the Commonwealth.

Speaking at Tuesday’s event, Amal Clooney warmly welcomed this initiative. As well as acting as Special Envoy, she is deputy chair of a High Level Panel of international legal experts convened by the UK and Canadian governments to advise on initiatives to strengthen media freedom. She spoke of working with ‘coalitions of the committed’ and believed that the Commonwealth could do more over a range of issues outlined in the Working Group’s document, including promoting the safeguarding of journalists and the repeal of oppressive legislation.

The immediate aim is for the Commonwealth formally to endorse the Principles. Yet there are signs that the issue is not high on the list of priorities of the Commonwealth Secretariat or of the governments of most member states. At the meeting on Tuesday evening, a representative from the Secretariat may have provided some insights into the organisation’s thinking when he questioned the degree to which state action could really help in enabling the media to hold governments to account. He suggested that financial pressures on the press, due in part to the rise of social media, were leading to a shift away from the sort of expensive investigative reporting that genuinely served to strengthen democracy.

Another sign that the support of the inter-governmental Commonwealth for new media freedom protocols may be lukewarm is the very fact that it has chosen to hold its 2020 heads of government meeting in Rwanda. Rebecca Vincent described Rwanda’s place (155th out of 180 countries) in her organisation’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index as ‘dismal’. The Sunday Times foreign correspondent, Christina Lamb, who also attended Tuesday’s event, characterised Rwanda as one of the most difficult places in the world for journalists to work. As recently as October 2014, the country imposed an indefinite ban on BBC broadcasts in the local Kinyarwanda language.

Although this was triggered by government displeasure at the broadcast on BBC 2 of a documentary questioning official accounts of the 1994 genocide in the country, Reporters Without Borders suggested it was part of a general strategy to muzzle the press ahead of elections scheduled for 2017. The Commonwealth is in danger of seeing its 2020 summit overshadowed by the host nation’s record on human rights and freedom of expression, just as happened in 2013 when the meeting was held in Sri Lanka.

Yet the case of Rwanda points, once again, to the dangers of grandstanding on this issue. One might feel far less relaxed about a ‘free and irresponsible’ press if one had lived through a genocide which claimed the lives of up to a million people a mere 25 years ago, and in which radio was actively used to incite and orchestrate violence. Recent research by two US-based academics who interviewed Rwandan journalists found that they felt a genuine duty to promote peace, and recognised that restraints on what they could or should report were necessary for social cohesion.

Indeed, the Ghanaian High Commissioner, while applauding the work his own government had done in this area noted that there was a balance to be struck between protecting freedom of speech and tackling the spread of extremism. As so often, the real value of the Commonwealth and its networks lies in their ability to facilitate a frank discussion between countries with very different needs and experiences. And as Amal Clooney noted, rather than simply waiting for governments to respond, we can empower the peoples of the member states to bring about change themselves. The ICWS is certainly keen to play a role in that process, and the April 2018 Principles on Media Freedom provide an excellent starting point.

Professor Philip Murphy is director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and author of The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth.