Fifty-three Commonwealth heads of government are meeting for a summit in London this week. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the UK Minister of State for the Commonwealth, lauded it as a unique network of 53 states with a responsibility to exert global influence based on a shared commitment to democracy, the rule of law and good governance as enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter of 2013.
But the record of Commonwealth countries concerning the rising number of killings of journalists — whose work holds a mirror up to the societies they live in – points to a dismal failure by the authorities in some member states to protect the lives of journalists targeted for their work. UN statistics also show that in all but a few cases the killers are shielded from facing justice by a climate of judicial impunity. Where is the rule of law in that?
In the five years from the start of 2013 to the end of 2017 as many as 57 journalists in Commonwealth countries were killed in the course of their work, according to UNESCO, the UN’s agency with a mandate to promote freedom of expression.
Most were killed to stop them from publishing reports into abuses of power, crime or corruption, often linked to public figures or law-enforcement officials. Among the recent shocking murders of journalists are those of editor and journalist Gauri Lankesh, shot outside her home in Bangalore, India last September, and Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta’s best-known investigative journalist, killed in a car bombing one month later.
Yes, Commonwealth countries like India have pioneered some of the world’s most liberal Right to Information laws, and all member states are publicly committed to democratic standards including the separation of powers, independent courts and the rule of law.
Yet Commonwealth governments have evaded the chorus of demands for them to take determined actions to confront the pattern of violent assaults and other arbitrary actions aimed at silencing journalists and news media whose role is to inform the public. The London summit is the right time for them to put this on their agenda.
Luckily the Commonwealth has vigorous civil society organisations which already monitor cases of violence and intimidation against journalists and others who document abuses of civil and political rights. The Commonwealth Charter gives a mandate for strong action – despite the reluctance of some member states — by acknowledging the ‘surge in popular demands for democracy and human rights’.
UNESCO’s figures give this revealing breakdown of the 57 killings of journalists in Commonwealth countries in the five years up to the end of 2017: Pakistan 23, India 18, Bangladesh 8, Nigeria 3, and one each in Kenya, Malta, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
Even more troubling, perhaps, is the picture that emerges from UNESCO’s records on the lack of effective judicial follow-ups in countries where journalists have been killed. The figures are based on states’ replies, made on a voluntary basis, to requests for information made by the Director-General of UNESCO after every verified killing.
The latest official report published by the Director-General of UNESCO recorded state authorities’ responses to killings of journalists during the ten-year period from 2006 to 2015. In that decade 104 journalists were killed in eight Commonwealth (including 9 journalists killed during Sri Lanka’s civil war up to 2009). Those statistics — based on information supplied by the governments concerned — fail to record a single case in which the perpetrators were brought to justice. Not one.
The figures are incomplete because too many states routinely fail to send back information about prosecutions, despite persistent requests from the Director-General of UNESCO. Further research shows that a handful of journalists’ killings in Commonwealth states have led to successful prosecutions – for example, in the cases of TV journalist Wali Khan Babar, killed in Pakistan in 2013, and Gautam Das, a Bangladeshi crime reporter killed in 2005.
A first step towards building confidence would be for all Commonwealth states to pledge to open investigations into the scores of unresolved cases and report any progress to the UN.
Journalists are only one of many categories of people who may face violence or persecution in Commonwealth countries, with all their diversity and ethnic and political tensions. But half a dozen United Nations resolutions adopted since 2012 have recognised that journalists face special dangers because of their work and deserve protection in order to counter corruption and abuses of democratic rights.
In advance of the London summit a coalition of grassroots Commonwealth professional organisations has come together to urge government leaders at the summit to face up to this stain on the organisation’s record. The Commonwealth Journalists Association joins the Commonwealth’s impressive networks of lawyers, legal educators, parliamentarians, academics and human rights advocates in putting forward a balanced and practical set of Commonwealth Principles on Freedom of Expression and the Role of the Media in Good Governance.
The Principles are written guidelines for democratic rules of engagement, so to speak, between the media and the parliament, judiciary and executive. The Principles will not be legally binding as Commonwealth states have made clear that would be anathema to them. But can at least serve as a manual of good practice to move the countries of the Commonwealth towards ending the scourge of impunity and fulfilling their public commitment to protect the media’s right to report on public affairs.
The heads of government meeting in London’s royal palaces this week should realise that if the Commonwealth cannot be part of the solution it may well be part of the problem.