Hostility to press freedom and journalistic independence is growing across the Commonwealth, with journalists facing increasing obstruction and even physical danger. To address these issues, a major international conference, co-sponsored by Asian Affairs, was held in London, aimed at paving the way for further events
Organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, a two-day conference entitled ‘The Commonwealth and Challenges to Media Freedom’ drew together leading journalists, academics, lawyers, policymakers and human rights practitioners from a wide range of Commonwealth countries.
‘Freedom of speech is an integral part of a functioning democracy, and in these days of big shifts, there is even more of a need for investigative journalists to hold the powerful to account,’ explained Dr Sue Onslow, conference convenor and deputy director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University’s School of Advanced Study. ‘But across the Commonwealth there are multiple pressures on media freedoms: from shifting technology delivery, governments and their allies, hostile groups, criminal networks, as well as poor legal protection and from media professionals themselves. This is a particularly timely meeting, to discuss current common challenges and to contribute to debates within the Commonwealth on ways forward.’
Physical danger to journalists hasn’t just been in conflict zones, noted William Horsley, International Director, Centre of the Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield in Britain. In the decade from 2006 to 2015, the number of journalists killed in non-conflict zones was alarming: in Pakistan, for instance, it totalled 51, in India 23, and nine in both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Beyond the stark figures, Horsley stressed that none of these killings had been resolved by the authorities, nor by legal process.
This was a point taken up by the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland, in her keynote speech. ‘We have to recognise as weaknesses the appalling number of recent cases of murder and brutality that often take place within systematic persecution of journalists and bloggers,’ she said. ‘It is incumbent upon states to investigate promptly and impartially such violations, and to conduct a thorough examination of the systematic nature or patterns of the violations and abuses that occur.’ The Secretary-General warned that there is also an escalation in state intervention to control or curb the freedom and autonomy of the internet, with interventions to limit editorial freedom – whether as a result of corporate, party political or government diktat.
The benefits and dangers of social media were widely discussed at the conference. It was acknowledged that social media can be an opportunity for counter-narratives and for humanising many important issues, as well as being a tool for sharing security information for populations. But the dark side of the double-edged sword was also explored. Historian Victoria Schofield stressed that social media can be distorted by all sides, not least for spreading false news, racial hatred and bigotry, and can also be used to influence the young to join militant groups.
One speaker mentioned violence against social media activists, and it was noted that many bloggers never even think of risks they face before going online. A barrister said that bloggers don’t have the same support mechanisms as established journalists, although she pointed out that some journalists have been released from prison as a result of pressure through social media.
Another topic widely discussed was the role of the media in elections in the 52 member states of the Commonwealth. The importance of reliable reporting in the long lead-up to elections and after the poll was emphasised, rather than just during the elections themselves. Various points were raised, not least the issue of who owns the relevant media organisations, and whether or not the owners are the politicians themselves contesting the elections.
Concerns were expressed about the attitudes of some Commonwealth governments towards the media. The Indian television journalist Nupur Basu spoke about current problems for the independent media in India, where she said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attitude was one of ‘you are with us or you are against us’.
And while Botswana is often held up as a beacon of democracy in Africa, Sonny Serite, a political columnist with the Telegraph Newspaper, says it is very difficult to get information from the Botswana Government.
According to Serite, Botswana’s President Ian Khama publicly demeans the media, has never held a press conference since becoming president in 2008, and never allows the media to ask him questions. ‘Democracy without media freedom is a mockery,’ he added.
A written presentation by Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, a legal analyst on civil liberties and columnist on Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times, addressed issues of increasing concern in Sri Lanka, particularly the faltering progress in enacting a Right to Information law and the impact of a recently proposed counter-terror law on freedom of expression.
The Executive Director of the Telegraph Media Group in UK since 2005, Lord Guy Black, said that press freedom is now under greater pressure than before in many countries. But there were exceptions in the Commonwealth, including Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, where the situation had improved sharply. Lord Black called for the removal of barriers against freedom of the media that have built up, many of them being hangovers from the colonial period, and spoke of the need for more to be done to ensure the safety of journalists.
For Lord Black, freedom of the media is a prerequisite for trade and good governance in countries across the Commonwealth; it was essential to have a self-regulating free press. But in his view the UK is facing a very serious challenge to its freedom through what is known as Section 40, which is awaiting passage through Parliament. Following an inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson, under the proposed legislation media organisations would be liable for the total court costs in the event of any legal challenges to what they publish. Mark Stephens, an English solicitor who specialises in media law, argued that Section 40 would have ‘a chilling effect on free speech in the UK’.
Looking ahead to the outcome of discussions about challenges to media freedom, Secretary-General Scotland said, ‘I am pleased to know that members of the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association and the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, together with representatives of other Commonwealth organisations for lawyers and other professions, are examining the possibility of a Commonwealth declaration on the media and good governance, with a view to establishing mechanisms for assessing and helping to deliver remedies for serious and persistent breaches and violations.’ She hoped this might lead to something similar to the Commonwealth’s doctrine of the separation of powers, better known as the Latimer House Principles.
‘Indeed,’ said the Secretary-General, ‘for those of us hoping to move towards adopting distinctive Commonwealth principles on the media in line with the normative framework of international human rights law, the process by which the Latimer House Principles came into being is an encouraging example of how the Commonwealth works.’
Following on from this inaugural conference, the Centre of Commonwealth & Media Freedom plans to organise two meetings a year to address specific issues of media freedom across the Commonwealth.