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Talk is cheap? Action needed by the Commonwealth


On paper, Commonwealth countries are committed to freedom of speech – in 2013 they signed up to Chapter V (Freedom of Expression) of the Commonwealth Charter – but does that mean much as attacks on journalists (many fatal) have been steadily rising, while press freedoms are increasingly under pressure?

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies recently held a conference at the House of Commons on media freedom in the Commonwealth

This is what member states signed up to in the Charter: “We are committed to peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media, and to enhancing democratic traditions and strengthening democratic processes.” 

British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt had also put support for media freedom at the heart of the UK's foreign policy goals. 

On 21 January, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) organised a high-level event at the House of Commons to discuss and evaluate the Commonwealth’s track record on this issue, and the range of policy options to respond to global challenges. The event was set up by Dr Sue Onslow, deputy director of the ICWS, in partnership with the Commonwealth Journalists Association, the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Human Rights and on Media Freedom, and the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Distinguished speakers, led by Amal Clooney, UK Envoy on Media Freedom and the deputy chair of the High Level Legal Panel of Legal Experts, discussed the fundamental issue of media freedom and freedom of expression – as core human rights and vital underpinnings of democratic government – and the importance of multi-dimensional approaches to combat increasingly restricted media landscapes. 

While all speakers endorsed the work of the ICWS, in collaboration with other key stakeholders, on the Commonwealth principles on freedom of expression and the role of the media, there were serious concerns. 

These included the fact that only four Commonwealth countries subscribed so far to the joint UK/Canadian Global Pledge on Media Freedom, and certain Commonwealth countries have the worst records in this area. The UK isn’t beyond reproach either. It only comes 33rd out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index. 

The consensus was that it was time for Commonwealth countries to elevate press freedom among their political priorities and to develop the necessary strategies. For a lively account of the discussions and outcomes of the day’s activities check out the School of Advanced Study’s Talking Humanities blog post from ICWS director Professor Philip Murphy: How serious is the Commonwealth about press freedom?. And the official summary report on the event can be found here