Four score and seven years ago, the 1931 Statute of Westminster formally loosed Britain’s Dominions from the bonds of Empire as sovereign states. It was, if not the birth of the Commonwealth, a new birth of freedom: enshrining democracy, essential rights and the rule of law. Today, the Commonwealth Charter offers 2.4 billion people – a third of humanity – a panoramic vision of liberty.
Freedom of expression is at its core. Rightly, it is defined to include ‘a free and responsible media.’ Shamefully, by that test, this shining vision is a cruel mirage for much of the Commonwealth.
Media freedom is under direct – even deadly – attack. A culture of widespread impunity flourishes. In 2017, eight Commonwealth journalists were killed, including four in India and one – the fearless campaigner Daphne Caruana Galizia – assassinated in Malta, whose Premier was the Commonwealth’s Chair-in-Office. Elsewhere, five journalists vanished; 18 more were jailed.
Of 180 nations in the World Press Freedom Index, just 15 of 41 Commonwealth countries listed make the top 50, led by Jamaica at No 8. Eleven languish in the lowest 50 – with Rwanda at 159. This woeful record undermines democracy itself. The absence of trusted media free from traditional threats of intimidation and oppressive laws – such as sedition, contempt, and criminal defamation – stifles public debate. Meanwhile, citizens are exposed to new digital threats – fake news, and counterfactual disinformation – sapping their ability to make informed democratic choices.
For CHOGM this is a Gettysburg moment. It must revisit, renew and reinvigorate its precious vows of freedom. If it cannot live to its ideals, 2.4 billion people are entitled to ask: “What is the Commonwealth for?”