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Commonwealth urged to fortify laws that protect journalists

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YEARS of inaction by Commonwealth governments in response to violent assaults and excessive restraints on the work of independent media in the organisation’s 56 member states came under sharp scrutiny at a major United Nations conference in Vienna on Friday (Nov 4).

Can Yeginsu, a leading human rights lawyer who is the deputy chair of a panel of legal experts, known as “High-level panel”on media freedom, described as “absolutely unacceptable” the 96 percent rate of impunity (failure by the authorities to bring perpetrators to justice) in Commonwealth countries in cases that involve killings of journalists.

Yeginsu invited Commonwealth leaders to take unprecedented steps to counter persistent shortcomings and backsliding in ensuring legal protection for media freedom and independence.

Can Yeginsu, a London-based lawyer, said a meeting of Commonwealth law ministers on Nov 23 presented “a fantastic opportunity for the organisation because 96 percent is absolutely unacceptable in terms of impunity for that bloc”.

According to Unesco, as many as 200 journalists have died in target killings in Commonwealth states since 2006

He recalled that proposals were first put forward in 2018 for a set of “Commonwealth Princi­ples” on the media and good governance thanks to the coordinated efforts of six professional networks of Commonwealth journalists, lawyers, parliamentarians, human rights advocates and researchers.

A partially amended version of the 2018 media principles emerged after member states agreed to review and revise the original civil society-drafted text following a four-month online consultation process and review by government delegates late last year.

After six years of persistent advocacy and awareness-raising efforts by Commonwealth grassroots organisations, the law ministers are due to consider for approval a revised document on media principles during their meeting in Mauritius from Nov 22 to 25.

200 targeted killings

Unesco, the lead UN agency working for freedom of expression and the media, maintains an “observatory of killed journalists”, which has documented as many as 200 targeted killings of journalists in Common­wealth states since 2006.

Most cases involved journalists who reported on politics, crime, corruption or human rights abuses. Many suffered abduction, non-fatal attacks or torture as well as publicly-known threats to their safety before they were murdered.

Mr Yeginsu observed that the Commonwealth lacked effective structures for “an enforcement capability”. He added: “[The member states] have got to take steps, whether by reference to existing mechanisms within the Commonwealth, or whether it’s actually giving teeth to the Commonwealth Principles”.

His call echoes arguments made with increasing urgency by representative journalists and civil rights organisations in many Commonwealth countries, as well as intensive advocacy efforts directed toward the Commonwealth secretariat in London and all the member states.

Last week’s meeting in Vienna was co-hosted by Unesco, the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner and the Austrian government. It marked 10 years since the launch of an ambitious UN “Plan of action on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity”.

The Vienna gathering took stock of governmental actions to protect journalists from violent attacks and punish those responsible.

It gathered recommendations from NGOs, regional experts, monitoring groups and academics.

And then began the work of setting new priorities for coordinated actions by all stakeholders in the coming years.

The high-level panel of international lawyers was set up as an independent advisory body in 2019 under an initiative led by Britain and Canada. A global media “Freedom Coalition of States” publicly committed itself to reversing worldwide trends towards repression and violence against independent media as well as “cultures of impunity”.

Unesco announced in Vienna that the overall global rate of impunity now stood at 86 percent.

Yeginsu and other members of the panel of legal experts spoke in Vienna after hearing powerful and often searing testimony from prominent journalists and activists at high risk in Pakistan, Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, Mexico, Malta, and other countries where journalists’ murders have gained public attention.

Looking forward, Can Yeginsu said a strategic objective of the High Level Panel would be to “get some states to lead on this issue” in order to counter effectively a tide of killings and other acts of intimidation targeting journalists for their work.

The writer is a member of the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Journalists Association. A former BBC foreign correspondent, he now serves as international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2022


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