The importance of media freedom

The Commonwealth Charter (2013) Article V states ‘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.’

Impunity rate in the Commonwealth

Of the 960 journalists murdered worldwide since 2012, 143 lived in Commonwealth countries. The impunity rate across the Commonwealth —the rate at which these crimes go unresolved—is 96%.1

Please see the key sections of the report below.

Regular assessment of the climate of media freedom reveals concerning trends. Between 2012-2022, 19 Commonwealth countries saw their media freedom environment slide substantially (more than 10 places in the rankings).2 In 2016-2022 this figure had narrowed to a decline in 14 countries, comprising 29% of the total 180 surveyed; over the same period, 11 improved by the same criteria (23%), whilst most saw little sustained improvement.

On the basis of current World Press Freedom Index (2022) figures compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), only five Commonwealth countries are in the top 20 (New Zealand, Jamaica, Seychelles, Namibia & Canada); a further two Commonwealth countries are in the top 30 (UK and Trinidad & Tobago). 11 Commonwealth countries are in the bottom third of ranked countries (where the media environment is judged to be Difficult). Bangladesh’s ranking (162) sits in the ‘Very Serious’ category.3

Commonwealth societies also reflect the general decline of trust in news.4 The wide range of both covert and overt threats to media freedom reflect global trends towards authoritarian state controls and suppression of independent media.

2. Current environment

2.1 Legislative environment

Since 2016, RSF recorded 229 cases of abuse against journalists, including murder, imprisonment, disappearance and hostage taking in Commonwealth countries. The overwhelming majority of victims have been men, but female journalists often face gender- targeted online harassment and intimidation.5

Since 2016, there have been 229 cases of abuse against journalists, including murder, imprisonment, disappearance and hostage taking. The overwhelming number of victims have been men.

2.1.1. Impunity

  • Continued physical violence and killings. Since 2012, a total of 143 journalists have been murdered. Impunity remains unacceptably high across the Commonwealth: 96% of such cases remain unresolved (complete impunity) or open (partial impunity). As International Press Institute (IPI) and UNESCO stress, this impunity fuels further violence and weakens democracy.6

  • Since 2012, the killings of 25 journalists have been attributed to political groups, 23 to criminal groups, 6 murders are believed to have been instigated by government officials, and 2 to military officials.7

2.1.2. Use of punitive legislation

  • Legal intimidation, through the use of abusive lawsuits through litigation and pre- litigation process, to silence critical journalism, shut down transparency and accountability and undermine democratic rights. Use of punitive legislation includes criminal defamation, sedition and libel laws.

  • Increasing use of incarceration to silence journalists. As of December 2021, 22 freelance and staffer journalists and editors were imprisoned (in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India (7), Rwanda (7) and Cameroon (6).8

  • Use of censorship, criminalisation of legitimate journalistic activity, forced closures of media outlets, publication bans, take down orders. Strategies include shutting down the internet, mobile phone access, and specific service platforms; as well as government electronic surveillance; searches of media premises and confiscation of equipment

  • In recent years India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nigeria have all restricted internet access to their citizens, for reasons ranging from the suppression of dissent to dealing with cheating in school exams.9

2.1.3. Use of legislation

  • Access to Information laws may not be accompanied by robust implementation strategies or RTI laws may be too broadly defined.10

  • Passage of ‘fake news legislation’ (e.g. Malaysia) 11 and Digital Services Act (Bangladesh).

2.2 Operating Environment

There have been at least 21 killings of journalists across the Commonwealth since Jan 2021. Although the overall number has declined somewhat between 2012-22, there has been ‘a marked erosion of legally enabling environments and an increase in other damaging forms of targeted attacks on the media.’12 Verbal or non- lethal physical violence against journalists has continued.

2.2.1. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic

In the Commonwealth as elsewhere, the COVID-19 pandemic has been used as a pretext for government measures to constrain media freedom and access to official information:

  • arrest/charges for criticising government handling of COVID [India (5), Malaysia (6), Nigeria (1), Uganda (1)].
  • arrest/charges/criminal investigation under other laws, to enforce lockdown regulations [Uganda (1); Mozambique (1)].13

2.2.2. Harassment

  • A surge of disinformation/fake news on social media platforms, and lack of action by internet platforms. Digital, psycho-social, gender and identity-based intimidation;
  • ​​​​​​​In particular, social media content has become increasingly hostile, including gender- based hate speech, with lack of moderation of content. Although there is no data from Commonwealth countries on threats and intimidation, there is a clear correlation between online threats and off-line violence.14

2.2.3. Concentration of media provision

  • State-led capture of the media landscape, often accompanied by politically-motivated denigration of opponents and exclusion of critical media voices.
  • Media pluralism and independence of ownership are declining, a product of direct government monopolistic strategies, political usage of advertising streams, and strains of the commercial legacy media model. There are increasing concerns about growing external control through dominance of hardware investment and concentration of commercial media ownership.15
  • Media freedom during electoral campaigns has been constrained by the failure of national electoral commissions to ensure fair and equitable access to media platforms for political campaigning, and transparency. These have been repeatedly noted by Commonwealth Observer Groups. The 2018 Commonwealth protocols to strengthen election observation included continued assessment of the media environment throughout the electoral cycle. Data is not yet available on any consequent impact on electoral commission reform across Commonwealth countries.

3. Significant regional variations

3.1 South Asia

The four main countries of South Asia are the bottom four Commonwealth countries in the WPFI: Sri Lanka 146, India 150, Pakistan 157, and Bangladesh 162.

3.1.1 Impunity

  • The UNESCO Observatory of Killings data since 2012 reveals that South Asia has witnessed the highest number of killings (119), comprising 83% of the total across the Commonwealth. 58 killings took place in Pakistan, 42 in India, 16 in Bangladesh and 2 in Maldives. According to CJP data, local journalists are most at risk, rather than foreign reporters. Most were killed were involved in political journalism, followed by corruption, human rights, and crime investigations. The most vulnerable have been those producing copy for internet platforms, followed by television, print and radio. Those working in editorial positions, opinion columns or as producers, are less vulnerable.16
  • A direct correlation between high rates of killings and high rates of impunity has been identified. This is ‘a unique issue’, whereby media professionals are specifically targeted. Countries with complete impunity (new, ongoing & unresolved) in this decade include India (35), Pakistan (57) and Bangladesh (13). Over the same time frame, there has been full justice in 4 cases. Overall, this represents an impunity rate of 96.6%.

3.1.2. Operating Environment

  • Incarceration remains an issue of great concern. As of December 2021, there were 8 imprisoned journalists in the region (this figure does not include those who had been detained, charged and released, over the course of the year). Charges range from anti-state activities, fake news and defamation, as well as detention without charge. There is a disturbing pattern of journalists and bloggers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who speak up for religious freedom being silenced or imprisoned. There is a growing tendency in India to close down sources of external funding for a variety of NGO activity, including media initiatives. Bangladesh has jailed a considerable number of journalists under the Digital Security Act.17 In Sri Lanka, there have been instances of journalists reporting on terrorism cases and human rights abuses in the Sri Lankan civil war being targeted.18

3.2 Africa

3.2.1. Impunity

In terms of the 21 cases of killings of journalists since 2012, there have been 4 resolved cases of killings (South Africa, Tanzania, Nigeria, Tanzania). This represents 81% complete or partial impunity.

  • Since 2016 RSF have recorded 70 instances of human rights abuses against journalists (killings (11), imprisonment (47), disappeared (8), hostage takings (4)19 across the 19 African members of the Commonwealth.
  • Jurisdictions in 8 Commonwealth African have failed to resolve cases of lethal violence against journalists:20 Cameroon (1); Eswatini (1); Ghana (1); Kenya (3); Mozambique (1); Nigeria (8); Tanzania (1); Uganda (2).

3.2.2. Operating Environment

  • Gambia has witnessed the greatest improvement in terms of media environment (92- 50), and Ghana a concerning decline (27– 60) in the WPF rankings. Five countries remain in the bottom third, with Rwanda remaining the most problematic (136). Apart from Namibia and Seychelles, where the environment ‘tends to favour the practice of journalism’, all are judged to have vulnerabilities, ranging from a high degree of dependency on the political context to ensure constitutional freedoms (Kenya), repressive legal frameworks, surveillance, attacks, arbitrary arrests, and extra-judicial killings.

3.3 Canada and Caribbean

3.3.1. Impunity

UNESCO has received no information so far on one killing (Barbados, 202021), and there have been no imprisonments in the region since 2012.

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​​​​​​​3.3.2. Operating Environment

Generally, the media environment is positive.

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  • Jamaica’s media environment has been repeatedly judged the most robust and pluralistic.
  • In the judgement of the WPF Index, media in the seven members of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) have struggled to maintain a strong press freedom record in the face of editorial censorship and growing political influence.
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3.4 Australasia & Pacific

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3.4.1. Operating Environment

There have been no RSF registered deaths nor cases of imprisonment.

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  • However, there have been repeated instances of government actions against press freedom through the exploitation of national security legislation (Australia), intimidation and threat of imprisonment under vaguely worded legislation (Fiji); police harassment and government intimidation (Solomon Islands);22 ultra-concentration of media ownership and growing official pressure; as well as lack of constitutional guarantees of press freedom (Australia), absence of RTI legislation and proximity of media owners and politicians (Papua New Guinea) .
  • In contrast, New Zealand remains a model of public interest journalism.
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3.5 Europe

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​3.5.1. Impunity

In the UK, 2 men allegedly involved in the killing of Lyra McKee in the UK have been charged; 1 has been convicted of possession of the firearm which was used.

​​​​​​​3.5.2 Operating Environment

  • In the UK there are concerning legislative proposals, restrictions on freedom of information requests, the prolonged detention of Julian Assange, and threat of violence against journalists in Northern Ireland.
  • ​​​​​​​In Malta, the protracted investigation into the assassination of investigative blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia (2017) revealed corrupt political/personal networks and high-level cover up. (Caruana Galizia had been target of numerous violent attacks and faced numerous was facing 47 SLAPPs at the time of her murder death.) The Maltese government has yet to implement the extensive reforms advocated by the independent public enquiry into her death.
  • ​​​​​​​Whereas freedom of expression and the press is guaranteed by the Cyprus constitution, there are concerns over the extent of religious, commercial interests’ and political influence on media, and multiple instances of verbal attacks on critical journalism, examples of online harassment and reports of surveillance of dissenting voices.

4. Conclusion

Press freedom and freedom of expression across the Commonwealth face hostile conditions related to threats and acts of violence, official pressure, partisan political interests and religious fervour convictions, as well as poor employment protections. Journalists and bloggers often suffer from unlawful surveillance as well as aggressive cyber harassment and denigration by government and political interests, seeking to dominate media space and ownership.23 In highly charged political environments, particularly at the time of elections, the civic space in which journalism operates is further constrained. There are grave issues around impunity, utilization of repressive legislation, and lack of protections against online harassment.

Although the evidence across the Commonwealth points to a decline in politically motivated killings, there has been a sharp rise in non-lethal violence and harassment. Systematic data about levels of online abuse is not readily available, but global trends show this is increasing.24 Similarly, there is no summary data on how many Commonwealth journalists have been forced into exile because of intimidation and abuse.

Areas of prime relevance and concern relate to

  • Levels of impunity from prosecution
  • Protection of journalists from misuse of law
  • Obligation to repeal overly restrictive legislation
  • Protection of journalists’ confidential sources.

The data above underlines the necessity of Commonwealth actions to ensure accountability, legislative review processes, and implementation of commitments. This is against the background of a marked consolidation of UN international standards and commitments, which expect the Commonwealth to adhere to the protection and promotion of human rights standards. The currently published Commonwealth Principles have been revised in draft, but guidelines related to protections in areas of prime concern must meet international standards.25

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies
School of Advanced Study, 
University of London
November 2022

 

 

5. Appendix

Commonwealth governments have agreed to the following:

The Commonwealth (Latimer House) Principles on the Three Branches of Government, adopted by Heads of Government in Abuja (2003), underline: (b) Government’s transparency and accountability is promoted by an independent and vibrant media which is responsible, objective and impartial and which is protected by law in its freedom to report and comment upon public affairs.’ (p.14).

The 2011 Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) mandate was extended to include: “…The group now assesses concerns such as the unjustified postponement of elections, egregious violations of human rights, the undermining of the judiciary, lack of space for the opposition, and systematic constraints on civil society and the media.”26

At least 35 Commonwealth states have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the key human rights instrument in international law, interpreted by the treaty body, the UN Human Rights Committee, in its landmark General Comment No. 34 on Article 19 ICCPR.27 Most Commonwealth states also have obligations under the regional treaties covering Europe (Council of Europe), the African Union and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Individual Commonwealth have also endorsed SDG goals (includes SDG 16, target 1028) encompassing accountable institutions, access to justice and access to information. (SDG)

10.1.1 covers monitoring killings of journalists (16.10.1).

Eleven members of the Commonwealth have joined the Global Media Coalition.29

6. Footnotes

1 UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists. https://en.unesco.org/themes/safety-journalists/observatory

2 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom (WPF) Index. https://rsf.org/en/index

3 The World Press Freedom Index is calculated on the basis of two components: (i) a quantitative tally of abuses against journalists in connection with their work, and against media outlets; (ii) a qualitative analysis of the situation in each country or territory based on the responses of press freedom specialists (including journalists, researchers, academics and human rights defenders) to an RSF questionnaire. Each country or territory’s score is evaluated using five contextual indicators that reflect the press freedom situation in all of its complexity: political context, legal framework, economic context, sociocultural context and safety.

4 Fletcher, 2020, cited in J Harrison & S Torsner, Safety of Journalists and media freedom trends in non-EU countries from a human rights perspective, Directorate-General for External Policies, European Parliament, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2022/702562/EXPO_BRI(2022)702562_EN.pdf , (June 2022) p.5. See also, W. Horsley and M. Selva: UNESCO Issue Brief on Freedom of Expression and the Safety of Foreign Correspondents (2021) https://en.unesco.org/news/unesco-brief-calls-attention-safety-foreign- correspondents

5 Horsley/Selva 2021 UNESCO Issue Brief.

https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/unesco-impunity-killings-journalists-remains-unacceptably-high- 86?hub=701&TSPD_101_R0=080713870fab2000cf71bb103f5866904fcc8307d9e342c082c6fab2b0b0938a2d18 af8cd4d19cc008be41ca131430007c4cf04df3957672a6199874fb317866c5c208deaec4efe66223444a2150c30a5 14bd4282cb0b25198b2ab5c4eaf8b87

7 www.cpj.org

8 https://cpj.org . These figures do not include those who were imprisoned, and then released.

9 Access Now, A Global Overview of Internet Shutdowns, 2021. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1DvPAuHNLp5BXGb0nnZDGNoiIwEeu2ogdXEIDvT4Hyfk/edit#gid=109 8610033

10 Harrison & Torsner.

11 Harrison & Torsner.

12 Harrison & Torsner.

13 International Press Institute Alerts Covid https://ipi.media/alerts/?topic=covid- 19&alert_type=arrestcharges&country=0&years=0&search=& , accessed 5/11/2022.

14 See the 2021 UN General Assembly resolution on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity (A/RES/76/173), the 2020 Human Rights Council resolution on the safety of journalists (A/HRC/RES/45/18), and the 2021 Windhoek+30 Declaration on information as a public good (UNESCO General Conference Resolution 41C.41); and calls for public figures to desist from anti-media rhetoric.

15 See: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-08-17-iqbal-surves-independent-media-outsources-staff-to-tap- public-investment-corporation-billions/ and https://amabhungane.org/stories/220219-is-iqbal-surve-finally-unbankable/

16 Harrison & Torsner.

17 https://cpj.org/2022/06/bangladesh-journalist-arrested-2-charged-under-digital-security-act/

18 Dr Shankuntala Banaji, London School of Economics, Institute of Commonwealth Studies conference, June 2020.

19 World Press Freddom Indiex 2016-2022.

20 UNESCO Observatory of Killings.

21 https://en.unesco.org/themes/safety-journalists/observatory/country/223660

22 The Guardian, 3 May 2022.

23 www.rsf.org

24 Harrison & Torsner, p.14.

25 Leading human rights lawyer Can Yeginsu, a deputy chair of the authoritative High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, described as ‘absolutely unacceptable' the 96 % of impunity in Commonwealth countries in cases that involve killings of journalists. Yeginsu also invited Commonwealth leaders to take unprecedented practical steps to counter persistent shortcomings and backsliding in legal protections for media freedom and independence. UN High Level Conference on Safety of Journalists: Protecting Media to Protect Democracy, Vienna, 4 November 2022.

 

26 https://thecommonwealth.org/commonwealth-ministerial-action-group

27 https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx?Treaty=CCPR&Lang=en

28   https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2016/07/goal-16-right-to-press-freedom-and-information/

29 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/media-freedom-coalition-an-overview/media-freedom-coalition-an- overview#members