The promotion of democracy and human rights has been a major undertaking by the Commonwealth and the Secretariat for decades.  Yet as democracy has increased throughout the Commonwealth, media freedom has decreased.  The list of Commonwealth countries where infringements of the human rights of journalists have occurred is shaming and the International Press Institute has reported that three Commonwealth members – India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – are among the ten deadliest countries for journalists in the world.

Many countries lack any kind of legislative framework to protect journalists, but currently, South Africa is contemplating the introduction of a bill that would set up a Media Appeals Tribunal as well as introducing a Protection of Information Law.  Sierra Leone has a well-catalogued history of detaining journalists, while in Cameroon, an editor was attacked and journalists constantly harassed. In Sri Lanka they have been imprisoned, tortured and killed and a television station has been burned down.  Recent reports from Rwanda, the Commonwealth’s newest member, paint a sorry picture of an escalating erosion of the freedom of journalists.

A raft of harsh laws exist which aim to control the media’s right to report on issues of national importance.  Often they are relicts of an earlier time and are out-dated and inappropriate.  These include laws such as sedition, public order and security laws, internal security and official secrets acts, powers of detention without trial for up to two years, newspaper licensing, newsprint control, criminal and seditious defamation offences and crimes of insulting parliament, the prime minister or the president.  Still of greatest concern is the law of criminal defamation, which is frequently used to force editors to comply with the Government diktats.

Equally, there are new laws that require scrutiny, particularly the raft of anti-terrorism legislation, which was brought into effect as a knee-jerk reaction to the events of 9/11.  These laws, which were often rushed through and poorly drafted, now serve to constrain the media in inappropriate ways.

The CPU Media Trust is intending to undertake a project to analyse the laws that govern the media in ten Commonwealth countries with the intention of creating a report that will enable an informed dialogue with Governments, the Secretariat and Commonwealth law ministers to persuade them of the need for change. The ultimate intention would be to draw up a set of principles – similar to the Latimer House Guidelines – that would set out the requirements for the operation of a free and fair media throughout the Commonwealth.

The ten countries selected are:


The Gambia

South Africa


Sri Lanka


United Kingdom

New Zealand


Papua New Guinea

To enable this initiative a vast amount of research will be required, not only of the material which is currently in the CPU’s archives, but also of other, external material which exists and which requires analysis.

The first step will be to catalogue and scrutinise the key laws that affect the media in all countries of the Commonwealth, followed by an in depth analysis and assessment of the laws in the selected countries.

Ten years ago the Legal Support Programme of the CPU created a significant body of research on media law change in the Commonwealth and the new initiative can capitalise on that.   This programme was started in 2001to provide free legal advice to newspapers, individuals and governments in Commonwealth countries.  The CPU was assisted by an extraordinary group of leading UK media and human rights lawyers who provided legal knowledge and expertise.  In the early days of the project, a number of individuals and countries were helped with legal advice as diverse as drafting new media laws, providing case law and background for legal cases and providing education for media practitioners in key areas of media and human rights law through a series of media law seminars.