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Commonwealth Journalists' Association

CJA President Mahendra Ved

CJA President Mahendra Ved appeals to the heads of government summit in London to remember the pivotal role of a free press

The statement by the Commonwealth Heads of Government on November 29, 2015 at the end of the last CHOGM held at Malta makes no direct reference to the role of media or the media itself. But it would be safe to assume that their concern and commitment to uphold the principles of democracy and human rights would naturally extend to the freedom of expression, without which these two and other noble values cannot be served.

It is time to seek a formal place, beyond just a mention in the final declaration, at the CHOGM summit in London. It is essential because media freedom is in peril, and journalists’ working conditions have worsened since the Commonwealth leaders last met.

This has been on the table of the Commonwealth’s partner organisations directly concerned with media and a whole range of related issues: the Commonwealth Journalists Association, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the Commonwealth Legal Education Association, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (UK).

After discussions in London over long hours, and garnering opinions of their branches and units, the representatives have painstakingly worked on principles of freedom of expression and the role of media in strengthening democracy.

It is earnestly hoped that the Commonwealth leadership will give due attention to them and adopt them. It is necessary to send a clear message from London to all Commonwealth nations and through them to the international community, that media freedom is essential to guarantee the safety, prosperity and wellbeing of seven billion-plus people, their environment and much else.

The Commonwealth leaders need to acknowledge that media freedom is endangered in many of the Commonwealth nations and those outside it where many governments swearing by democracy and rule of law have fallen short on their claimed intentions and actions, often citing “national security.” Journalists on duty have been jailed, abducted, maimed and killed.

At the last CJA Conference, 2016 in London, Lord Guy Black, chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, underscored the decline in press freedom, “across the world – not least of that in the Commonwealth.”

Painting a grim picture of press freedom, he noted that while Jamaica, Canada and New Zealand regularly lay among the top ten countries in the world with the greatest degree of press freedom – others languish year after year near the bottom. The press in Uganda, Pakistan, Rwanda, Bangladesh and The Gambia, remains “tightly and often punitively controlled,” said Lord Black.

The principal threat to the media, by the very nature of the way nations across the world are governed, emanates from the political class. That class is very astute. It is articulate enough to disclaim any notions, leave alone intentions, of posing such a threat.  To quote Lord Black again, “I get used to politicians talking about how they support a free press – usually they prefer another country’s press freedom to their own – but very few of them really understand what it is we fight for, and it’s important we articulate that.”

The situation is grim. It needs noting that most of the 74 journalists killed in 2016 were ‘targeted deliberately,’ says Reporters Without Borders. These threats come from governments, political classes, sectarian groups, militants and what governments, to obfuscate their role and escape responsibility, expediently call “non-state actors”.

Other media and human rights bodies have made similar assessments which need to be taken seriously. Media freedom is in peril. The Commonwealth should take a stand and resolve to defend it.

Martin Lumb