As leaders from the 53 Commonwealth countries flew into London last week Monday for a week-long Summit meeting, six Commonwealth organisations unveiled proposals for a 12-point Commonwealth code of conduct aimed at reducing the heavy toll of journalist killings and other threats to the media’s right to report. The Commonwealth Principles on Freedom of Expression and the Role of the Media in Good Governance were made public at the University of London’s Senate House, the home of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS).
The six signatory organisations of “Commonwealth principles on freedom of expression and the role of the media in good governance” are the Commonwealth Journalists Association, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Commonwealth Legal Education Association, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK.
“Governments are always keen to shape the political message. Media freedom is hard won and needs constant vigilance and active defence,” said Dr Sue Onslow, Deputy Director of the Institute, who opened the meeting to mark the publication of the principles.
Figures published by UNESCO, the UN Agency with a mandate to defend freedom of expression show that 57 journalists were killed for their work in Commonwealth countries between 2013 and 2017.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said last year that the number of journalists killed for doing their jobs represented “a serious indictment of our collective efforts to build a safer and more inclusive future.”
Among the widely reported cases in 2017 were the fatal shooting of editor and journalist Gauri Lankesh in India in September and the car bombing in October that killed investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta.
“Media freedom is in peril,” said Mahendra Ved, President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, “…the Commonwealth should now demonstrate the will to defend it through actions, not just words; I believe these guidelines can help to make the commitments real.”
The Commonwealth Principles on Freedom of Expression and the Role of the Media in Good Governance were drawn up by a Working Group representing journalists, academics, parliamentarians, lawyers, legal educators and human rights advocates across the Commonwealth. The document reflects international standards and best practice with regard to the relationships between the media and the three branches of government, effective protections for the independence of the media and its role in informing the public; the media’s respect for accuracy and fairness and promoting member states’ observance of the principles.
UNESCO’s statistics show that fewer than ten percent of all killings of journalists in Commonwealth countries have resulted in those responsible being brought to justice. Human rights groups say that high rate of impunity is at odds with the Commonwealth’s commitments to the rule of law and protecting the media’s legitimate right to report in the public interest.
Kayode Soyinka, publisher of Africa Today, was present at the launch of the principles. Soyinka said: “As a letter-bomb survivor and victim of the most gruesome attack on media freedom in my country, Nigeria, I support the Commonwealth Media Principles. The time has come for the Commonwealth to prove its relevance as a true champion of democratic values.”
Apart from condemning the high number of targeted killings of journalists in several Commonwealth member states, media and press freedom organisations have called for coordinated actions to combat numerous cases of abduction, violent assault, criminal prosecution and arbitrary closures of media outlets. The Commonwealth Summit will take place in London from Monday 16-20 April and President Mokgweetsi Masisi was among the Heads of States who attended the summit.
The Botswana Gazette reporter Sonny Serite was part of the panel that deliberated on Freedom of Expression and the Role of the Media in Good Governance in London last year in March.