THE government and the national media will both find a new set of principles, just unveiled by a group of Commonwealth associations in London, extremely useful in protecting freedom of expression in Pakistan and enabling the media to play its due role in securing the people’s right to good governance.

The document titled Commonwealth Principles on Freedom of Expression and the Role of the Media in Good Governance has been drafted by a working group of the Commonwealth Journalists Associa­tion and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and will be submitted to the Commonwealth leaders for endorsement and support in implementation.

The inspiration for drafting these principles came from the 2003 enunciation of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values on separation of powers of the three organs of state, and the realisation that “Government 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 on public affairs”.

What expedited the effort to frame the new principles was the Commonwealth secretary general’s address at a function in April 2017 in which she referred to the killing of scores of journalists across the world each year as “a serious indictment of our collective efforts to build a safer and more inclusive future”. The killings of media persons, their harassment in various ways and their imprisonment made a new effort necessary to protect press freedom and the safety of journalists, uphold the rule of law and fight corruption in public life.

A new set of principles on the freedom of expression must be complied with.

The principles “are intended to serve as a set of guidelines to assist member states and their agencies, as well as Commonwealth legislatures, judiciaries, civil society and media to make appropriate contributions to promoting and developing democratic, accountable and open societies in accordance with Commonwealth values, international norms and standards and the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals”.

The first of the 12 principles reiterates the fact that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy and underpins good governance, public accountability and respect for all human rights, and reaffirms the UN-recognised right to receive and impart information in any form from anywhere.

The second principle describes the nature and scope of restrictions that can be imposed on freedom of expression. These must be in accord with international human rights law, covenants and treaties. Where warranted by incitement to crime etc, the curbs should be prescribed by law and must be necessary and proportionate. The Commonwealth states are urged to revise their press legislation and sedition laws that criminalise free speech. Truth and public interest should be accepted as adequate defence, and sources of information as well as whistleblowers should be protected.

The third principle upholds the right of access to information and urges member states to enact and implement the right to information legislation and construe regulatory and restrictive laws narrowly and subject to the public interest test.

The fourth principle calls for open, two-way flow of information between parliament and the media. All elected bodies should encourage maximum media coverage of their proceedings and respect the media’s right to comment on their performance.

The fifth principle calls upon the judiciaries to promote open justice, and facilitate fair and accurate media coverage of court proceedings. Criminal law and contempt proceedings should not be used to restrict legitimate debate on the judiciary’s affairs. Courts, judges and lawyers must not be threatened or abused.

The media’s right to cover electoral processes is the subject of the sixth principle. Election commissions and other officials should ensure impartiality of electoral processes and equitable access to the media for all parties and candidates.

The seventh principle urges member-states to put in place effective laws and measures to ensure a safe and enabling environment for journalists to work without fear, intimidation and interference. Journalists should be trained and equipped to work during emergencies.

A call to end impunity in cases of killings of or attacks on journalists and to respect the UN plan of action and Unesco’s requests for judicial follow-up to killings of journalists is the theme of the eighth principle.

The ninth principle calls upon the media to set its professional standards and observe its code of conduct and instal a mechanism to address complaints against itself.

The 10th principle defines the limits of plans to regulate the various media forms without interfering with their rights. The last two principles, 11th and 12th, stress the observance of these principles and the upholding of Commonwealth values.

These principles cover some of the ground with which journalists have long been familiar, but they also address their concerns that are of recent origin, such as killings of media persons, demands of duty in conflict areas, and matters related to elections, the judiciary and impunity.

The principles discussed here are more relevant to Pakistan than many other countries of the world. This country has long been identified as one of the most dangerous places for journalists. It is about to hold a general election that is likely to determine the form and substance of democracy the state may be able to practise.

Corruption in public life and administration is endemic, and the state has yet to display the will and capacity to defeat the monster. Neither the much-touted development projects nor the campaign against extremism and militancy meets the minimum standards of transparency and accountability. The national media has a heavier than normal responsibility. It must help both state and society overcome the challenges confronting them with as little pain as possible. It is difficult to find any among the 12 principles that is not applicable to this country.

The government would thus do well to take definite steps to ensure the fullest possible compliance with these principles and support their adoption and implementation by fellow members of the Commonwealth.

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2018


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