The Commonwealth: Where being a journalist can kill you

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”99700″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]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.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-share-alt” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]The Commonwealth Principles on freedom of expression and the role of the media in good governance was published on April 11. The signatory organisations are the CJA, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Commonwealth Legal Education Association, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1523956946253-7cccb26e-7266-2″ taxonomies=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

India: Right to information and privacy ‘two sides of the same coin’

India’s President Pranab Mukherjee (Photo: Wikipedia)

India’s President Pranab Mukherjee (Photo: Wikipedia)

In September 2013, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee spoke about the inviolable right to privacy that citizens of India must enjoy, at the annual event of the Central Information Commission (CIC), a body constituted by India’s Right to Information Act, 2005.

Both the Act and the CIC have empowered ordinary citizens to submit applications requesting information from government bodies, injecting a new phase of transparency in an infamously opaque bureaucracy. In fact, the RTI Act has been born of, and has encouraged, large RTI ‘movements’, that have exposed layers of corruption in numerous schemes across various government departments.

For citizens, the fact that a government official has to release information regarding budgets, forms, decisions and other facets of public governance has led to the belief that unchecked corruption might finally simmer down, and that they are not longer helpless against the system.

However, as the RTI movement has matured over the last decade, serious questions of privacy protection have also started making their way into public discourse. The Act itself excludes a number of security and police agencies from having to divulge any information, and private companies and NGOs do not fall under the Act.

However, political parties that do fall under the act are furiously trying to legislate their way out from under the scanner. In fact, this move, supported by the ruling government that helped bring in the RTI has attracted a lot of criticism and well earned scepticism from the public. In a report on the matter, one of India’s biggest English news channels, NDTV, wrote, “The government decided to amend the law after political parties opposed the Central Information Commission’s order in June that six political parties including the Congress and the BJP will be under the RTI as they were substantially funded by public money. This would mean political parties would have to disclose campaign funding or how members voted during a secret ballot.” Indicative of the mistrust between government and the public, the report was called ‘Divided on everything else, political parties unite against RTI Act.’

Therefore, when the conversation turns to a conflict between the right to information and privacy, in India, it can often become muddled. It can seem that wrongdoers might attempt to hide behind the excuse of ‘privacy’. However, there is no escaping that protecting individual privacy is a genuine concern.

Many countries across the world that have enacted national RTI Acts also have privacy laws that carefully spell out the limits to which information about individuals can be disclosed. In general, information about personal life, sometimes including medical information, is exempt from RTI. Should names be revealed from all official documents, are all court proceedings public? And finally, do some people necessarily lose some privacy because of a ‘public interest’ test?

The World Bank Institute released a paper that describes RTI and privacy as “two sides of the same coin, essential human rights in modern information society.” It also goes on to add that, “privacy laws can be used to obtain information in the absence of RTI laws and RTI can be used to enhance privacy by revealing abuses,” and that both have been designed for accountability.

India does not have a privacy law in place right now, although what should be in the law has attracted considerable debate. Therefore, the contours of privacy in the RTI gambit have resulted from various decisions and court orders given over the years. For example, in 2011, the then chief information commissioner of the CIC informed India’s Reserve Bank of India that it had to reveal information, even if it meant public confidence in the institution might be adversely affected. And, as recently as early September 2012, the Mumbai High Court ruled that “disclosure of personal information in respect of service record, income tax returns and assets of an individual is illegal unless it is necessary in larger public interest.” This judgement protected the individual against any disclosure that had nothing to do with public interest, but instead caused unwarranted invasion of privacy.

There have also been reports that some RTI applications are filed only to be a nuisance, with cases of RTI being used to blackmail public officials, with the threat of burying them under paperwork. In April 2013, one applicant was fined for filing over 100 applications.

Moving ahead, President Mukherjee’s speech indicated that public authorities should be proactive and voluntarily put information in the public domain for the use of citizens, effectively inculcating a culture of transparency from the beginning.

However, until that happens, one can assume that the citizen will most certainly have to rely on the RTI for full disclosure about its government’s activity, and the government will have to be wary of those using RTI applications for ulterior purposes. Most importantly, the individual right to privacy should not be lost in this paper war, between the two sides of the same coin.

This article was originally posted on 25 Sept 2013 at

India: Right to information activist murdered

Shehla Masood, a freedom of information activist and blogger, was murdered yesterday in the city of Bhopal. The 39-year-old was shot in the neck as she got into a car in front of her home. Over the past two years, Masood had been publicly pushing for the enforcement of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in India. The 2005 RTI Act provides access to certain public documents but those seeking them — namely material involving sensitive local matters — are often targeted by officials, with a dozen people allegedly being killed last year for doing so.


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