Round Table JournalA special edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs looks at media freedom around the Commonwealth

[An excerpt from an opinion piece by David Page and William Horsley, members of the international executive of the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association (CJA).Opinions expressed in opinion pieces on this website do not reflect the position of the Round Table. The full article is available in the Round Table Journal’s special edition on media freedom.]

Several international media organisations already produce regular assessments of performance by Commonwealth and other countries. Freedom House rates countries according to whether their media are free, partly free or not free. The Committee to Protect Journalists produces statistics on the killing of journalists and on impunity. Reporters without Borders produces an annual World Press Freedom Index. There is also a Global Right to Information Index produced by the Centre for Law and Democracy in Canada.

Any Commonwealth Index would be able to draw on these valuable existing surveys. In 2016, the Commonwealth Secretariat produced a Global Youth Development Index, which could act as a model for a Media and Good Governance index. The Youth Development Index is a Commonwealth initiative but it looks at 183 countries worldwide, including 49 Commonwealth countries. As the Secretariat website describes the Index: ‘It ranks countries according to the prospects of young people in employment, education, health, civic and political spheres. Looking at 18 indicators including literacy and mental disorder rates, financial inclusion and voter engagement, the index both showcases the best-performing countries and serves as a warning light for low-scoring countries.’

There is bound to be a degree of scepticism about the value of creating another set of principles and another index of media performance when there is such widespread neglect of existing international agreements. What is required, it could be argued, is more effective implementation of what has already been agreed. We would argue, however, that the Commonwealth, as a free association of sovereign nations, is already committed to democracy, the rule of law and freedom of expression, and that the proposed principles are a means of re-energising that commitment in order to strengthen the role of media in good governance.

It is important to stress that such an initiative would need to be sensitively handled. Any suggestion that this is a North–South issue would need to be firmly dispelled. That is certainly not the case as many of the existing media league tables make clear. Sri Lanka and India are rated more progressively than the UK and Canada in their Right to Information regimes, while Jamaica, Samoa and Ghana are placed well above the UK in the 2017 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. There are strengths and weaknesses in all countries. The emphasis needs to be on peer-to-peer learning and the sharing of best practice rather than on training per se.

The London CHOGM: time for a fresh start

Announcing plans for the forthcoming CHOGM in London (also sometimes referred to as the ‘Commonwealth Summit’), the Secretariat identified ‘values and governance’ or ‘fairness’ as one of four major headings under which the Commonwealth intends to make a meaningful impact to improve the lives of the millions of people in those countries. This was a welcome re-assertion of the centrality of values in the creation of the organisation. But as this analysis has shown, much more needs to be done to ensure the voice of the Commonwealth is heard when journalists or champions of basic rights are killed for challenging vested interests or exposing corruption. More effective decision-making processes need to be put in place if the Commonwealth is to respond to the urgent and complex challenges it faces from the fragility of governance and failures of the rule of law in many member states. Of equal importance, the Commonwealth needs to reach out more openly to its vigorous civil society organisations for inspiration and support. If the goal is to make its Charter commitments a reality, that may be the only way.

The CJA hopes its media and good governance initiative will help to galvanise the Commonwealth to become a beacon of hope for free speech and media freedom in an increasingly illiberal and dangerous world. Setting high standards for the role of media – for journalists themselves as well as for member states – is a key part of the project. But it also requires better levels of understanding, better communication generally, between the media and the main branches of government. It is not just about the rights and the safety of journalists; it is about the rights of whole populations to have access to independent and diverse sources of information. It is about the way in which the media as the fourth estate contributes to the working of democracy and the accountability of government to the electorate. It touches not just on the media’s reporting role but on its educational role and its role in promoting the civil sphere and open dialogue.

For this reason, the CJA welcomes the partnership it has developed in recent years with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, with its strong track record of independent academic work on Commonwealth history and contemporary issues. The establishment at the Institute of the ‘Centre for Media Freedom’ reflects the growing importance of media issues in the Commonwealth and the need for more academic study of the impact of technological change and media proliferation in member states. The well-attended conference the Institute held in April 2017 on ‘The Commonwealth and Challenges to Media Freedom’ demonstrated its wide network of officials, academics and media professionals and its ability to bring them together for policy discussions.

Any initiative of this kind requires substantial backing – by governments, parliaments, civil society, non-governmental organisations and international donors – to facilitate the kind of progress that is required to turn the principles into reality. The Commonwealth has been suffering in recent years from a reduction in financial support, even from its own members, in part because of a lack of confidence in the direction of travel. With the new Secretary General now well established and the UK Government proposing to fund some ambitious projects during the time it chairs the organisation, that may be about to change. But the real thrust for reform has to come from Commonwealth countries themselves and from their civil society organisations.

Dr David Page is a senior research fellow with the Institute of Commonwealth Affairs, University of London and William Horsley is the International Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media, University of Sheffield.