Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 598 - 619)




  Mr Smart and Mr Carver, may I welcome you on behalf of the Committee with an apology for the delay in starting as we had some private business to conclude before we were able to start the meeting this morning. Before we get any further, I would like to ask Mrs Bottomley to begin the questioning.

Mrs Bottomley

  598.  Good morning. I hoped you could tell us just a little more about your organisation. It started in 1986 but could you tell us how you are funded, about the board composition and any particular links either with political parties or movements and the degree to which you are rooted in which particular countries?
  (Mr Smart)  Article XIX started in 1986. It came about through the initiative of a number of people, particularly the late Martin Ennals, who had been secretary general of Amnesty International and who was involved in forming a number of organisations. We are an international human rights organisation with our headquarters in London. We have also a regional office for Southern Africa in Johannesburg. Our funding comes from a wide variety of sources: private foundations, but largely government or quasi-government funding through the European Commission, through organisations like the Swedish International Development Agency. We get some funding from the Dutch Foreign Ministry. Much of this is project based. We put forward particular projects related to freedom of expression either in a specific country context or sometimes on a more thematic approach because, in our work, we do not so much work as a number of freedom of expression organisations do on individual cases, although we will take action on some of those; we try to look at the difficult policy areas that come with freedom of expression, both those legitimate areas of restriction of freedom of expression that are permissible under international law, but which sometimes are quite hazy in practice. Also, where the right to freedom of expression may be seen to be in conflict with other rights and again where some of those dividing lines are quite difficult, the area of hate speech being one example there. We have tried to do quite a bit of policy thinking. Our international board is very much international and representative of all of the regions. Until quite recently, our chairman was William Shawcross, the distinguished journalist. He has recently stood down and we have another British journalist, Rosemary Righter, as our new chairman, but our board is representative of all regions of the world.

Sir Peter Emery

  599.  What is your total annual income?
  (Mr Smart)  Our total annual income is something over £1.4 million.


  600.  How closely do you relate to the British Government, the Foreign Office in particular? Do they work closely with you on matters of common concern?
  (Mr Smart)  Yes, I would say so. One point I would like to make is that over the past year we have certainly seen a marked warming or a greater openness from the Foreign Office to discussing some items with us, trying to draw on our expertise and also to share some thinking with us and with other NGOs. That has been a welcome step. One example of that is we were consulted on the mandate for the OSCE freedom of the media representative and we made some input into that. That was a useful opportunity for us. Obviously, there was a government to government negotiation within the OSCE going on but it was good to feel that we could make some small contribution to that process.

  601.  And that is new?
  (Mr Smart)  That is new. There were certainly briefings between the Foreign Office and the NGO community in relation to the UN Human Rights Commission and so on in the past. There has been a warming of approach and certainly at the official level the enhancement of the role of the Human Rights Policy Department has been apparent.

  602.  Your normal entry point then would be at the Human Rights Policy Department?
  (Mr Smart)  That would be our normal key entry point but, on specific countries, we would also have quite a lot of collaboration and consultation with the regional desks and sometimes we meet new ambassadors or High Commissioners before they are taking up their posts so that we can talk to them about media freedom issues that we are concerned about in the countries to which they will be accredited. One example is the current ambassador to Indonesia who visited our office for some useful discussions before he took up his post. My colleague had a recent Foreign Office meeting with Mr Penfold, High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, who is now quite well known.

  603.  That is part of a programme arranged by the Foreign Office for relevant diplomats?
  (Mr Smart)  Yes.

  604.  Are there any things which you would expect from the Foreign Office which you are not getting?
  (Mr Smart)  In terms of policy areas, while we have some commendatory things to say about warming over the past year, there are some areas of policy where we feel the UK government should be pushing forward. Maybe we can come on to those. In terms of the general relationship, I think it is quite good but we want to see how it develops. We would like to see increasing consultation and collaboration, recognising that we are looking at situations from quite different perspectives.

  605.  You, understandably, are the lobbying organisation, and a very worthy one. No lobby gets 100 per cent of what it would like. So far as British posts overseas are concerned, how do you relate to those?
  (Mr Smart)  Again, if we have a delegation visiting a country, then we may or may not seek out contacts. It depends on the individual circumstances. To give one very positive experience, I was recently in Belarus and there the ambassador, Jessica Pearce, was extremely helpful in arranging a meeting for me and my colleague with a range of other western representatives. Belarus is a country where there are very significant media freedom issues, as you will be aware, so it was quite useful to have that exchange and also with the new OSCE permanent representative in Belarus who was invited to that meeting.

  606.  If an incoming government wishes to improve its legislation and its practices in terms of press freedom, would you give technical advice and assistance to that incoming government? Can you give examples of that? If a government wished to have a better performance in terms of press freedom than its predecessors, they were not sure how best to go about it and were looking for some advice and assistance, is that an area where you would operate?
  (Mr Smart)  Very much. Our work breaks down on the one side to documentation bearing witness about situations of censorship and the implications and so on. On the other side, it has a much more constructive and long term component. We spend quite a lot of our time and effort lobbying individual governments to make changes through communications, through meetings and through visits to countries and so on, but also we try to have a cross-fertilisation and facilitation role. I will pass to Richard Carver, if I may, in a moment, and he can maybe give you one example of how we work with the Law Commissioner in Malawi, where we try to contribute to a process of legal and institutional reform which certainly does have political support.

  607.  Mr Carver is head of your Africa Programme. Perhaps you could give that one example?
  (Mr Carver)  We were very active on freedom of expression issues in Malawi, documenting abuses and campaigning internationally under the previous government of Dr Banda, as a consequence of which we established quite close relations with the new constitutional order when it came in, in 1994. One of the particular areas that the new government and the Law Commissioner wanted to look at was reviewing laws relating to the media and freedom of expression, to bring them into conformity with the new constitution. We have made two major, very detailed submissions, one on broadcasting law and one on other law relating to the media, on the basis of which the Law Commissioner has drafted a new Communications Bill and I think other legislation will be in the pipeline. I would stress though that I am not sure whether this would strictly speaking fall under the heading of technical assistance. This was funded by the European Commission. We do not ever put ourselves in the position where we would be unable, because of a contract with the government, to criticise anything that we were unhappy about in their human rights records. We certainly continue to criticise where we think there have been problems in Malawi. Indeed, we have some problems with the new Communications Bill as drafted and we feel free to express those publicly.

Mr Rowlands

  608.  I have always thought media freedom was an integral part of the whole concept of good governance. It should be seen as a vital ingredient in the whole of the pitch for good governance. Are you happy that in either British governments, the European Commission or the European Union or even the Commonwealth or others that concepts of media freedom are built in now as a fundamental, integral test of criteria for achieving such a principle?
  (Mr Carver)  I think it varies with different multilateral bodies. For example, with the Commonwealth, I think this is still a serious problem. The question of freedom of expression and media freedom is not mentioned in the Harare Declaration and I think there is an urgent need to make that a central part of the human rights criteria by which Commonwealth governments are measured in the future. It probably occupies a more central part in the work of the European Union, but there again perhaps it assumes a different weight in different institutions of the European Union. We have very close relations with our funders in the Commission, who clearly regard this as fairly central and the Parliament also places a lot of emphasis on these things. There tends to be a slightly more pragmatic attitude sometimes on the part of the Council of Ministers in not making that quite such a central issue.

  609.  On the Commonwealth front, it is very important that you have drawn to our attention that it is not an integral part of the Harare Declaration. Clearly, you would be campaigning or making submissions to that effect: that it should be much more part of the Commonwealth initiative. Can I turn to the European Union and its position? At least in the case of the European Union, it has applicant states and therefore it has a handle. From your reading and detailed assessment of the Commission's reports on all the applicant states, was media freedom considered to be an integral part of the conditional test of all applicant states and how many of them passed it?
  (Mr Smart)  I think it is definitely an element there. I must say I have not read in detail the reports on the applicant states, but media freedom I think is regarded as a key component. We see this also with the OSCE system with Belarus, for example, not being admitted entry. At the same time, what we also try to draw attention to, both within the Council of Europe framework and to European governments, is that a number of states that are in the Council of Europe—Croatia and Turkey would be examples—are consistently being found, in Turkey's case, by the European Commission and the Court to be responsible for abuses of media freedom. One can see, in a number of other countries such as Croatia, the existence of legislation and prosecutions which are quite out of line with landmark judgments that have been laid down by the European Court, for example, on the question of criminal defamation.

  610.  We have court decisions against certain states?
  (Mr Smart)  What we have within the European system is a much more developed tradition, if you like, of judicial pronouncement where obviously, under the European Convention of Human Rights, this allows for certain restrictions on freedom of expression. The court has played the role of restricting the area of restriction, in a sense, of narrowing down the definitions. Therefore, for example, in a number of landmark judgments, it has held that politicians, by the nature of their trade, must expect to tolerate a greater degree of criticism and even abuse than the ordinary private citizen. Yet one sees in a number of states a retention of laws which cover insult to the president and this type of thing, which are definitely used to target critical media. Therefore, clearly, those states know that it will take a long time before all domestic remedies have been exhausted and those cases can then be brought before the European Commission and Court. They can look ahead to continuing to control the media in this way and therefore, where is the political leverage, is our question, by the partner governments within the regional network, the Treaty partners, to say, "There are these European Court decisions. You are not abiding by your obligations"? Once in, there is a sense that the leverage is lost, to a certain extent.

  611.  Have you any recommendations to the Committee on how to deal with these issues?
  (Mr Smart)  We have been talking with the Human Rights Policy Department about holding some sort of seminar where we might bring some people over from central and eastern Europe to look very much at to what extent are states that have been admitted within the Council of Europe and the OSCE structure abiding by the media freedom requirements that, by becoming Treaty partners, they entered into. Quite clearly, there is a deficit there.

  612.  Do I gather that you, as an organisation, are not a media watch and do not analyse the individual performance? You do not have, for example, detailed information on these applicant states and on the way they behave in the media?
  (Mr Smart)  We have limited resources so we obviously define our country priorities. Certainly where there are countries with very significant media freedom problems, we give closer attention to those within the European structure. Those on the inner run now for joining the Union have lesser problems at the moment.


  613.  Can you move from Europe, OSCE and the Council of Europe to Europe in relation to Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean? Do you find that, under LOME, agreements exercise leverage through conditionality in terms of press freedom?
  (Mr Carver)  The performance is patchy. A country that concerns us particularly at the moment, where we feel that Europe has lost the opportunity or not exercised the opportunity for leverage is Kenya, a situation which has been extremely grave for much of the time since the transition to multiparty rule in 1991. Attacks on the independent media and restrictions on private ownership of broadcast media have been features of that and, if you like, an early warning sign of other, even more serious things going on—for example, the violence taking place at the moment in the Rift Valley and taking place last year, before the elections, on the coast. The emphasis of the international community generally has been, as far as we can tell, very largely on the corruption issue which is a question which certainly needs to be addressed. That issue also ties in with the role of the media, but the broader questions of media freedom and human rights have not really been the subject of consensus among Kenya's European partners. We certainly feel that the British Government has been one those which has been particularly backward in pushing these concerns, both the previous and the present government. That would be an example where we feel that there has been a problem. In other cases, the performance has been better—perhaps Nigeria, but even on Nigeria the Council of Ministers actually relaxed its sanctions against Nigeria at the very moment when the military government was pushing through its own version of the transition programme in the post-Commonwealth Summit period and mounting ever more serious attacks on the media.

Sir John Stanley

  614.  Mr Smart and Mr Carver, have you read the government's first Human Rights Report?
  (Mr Carver)  Yes.
  (Mr Smart)  Yes.

  615.  You will have noticed then that just one page is devoted to the issue of freedom of expression which is a combination of generalities, which I am sure we all endorse, but in terms of specifics there is reference to Cameroon and a reference to the former Yugoslavia and nothing more than that. Are you satisfied with that or would you wish something very much more positive to emerge in future human rights reports?
  (Mr Smart)  We are very satisfied that the government should have made a commitment to publish an annual human rights report but, no, we would see this as very much, I hope, only a first attempt. I was at your meeting a week ago where I believe I heard Mr Lloyd promise that the only commitment was to continue to produce an annual report. We would like to give some thought as to making suggestions to the Foreign Office as to how they might give much more clear, coherent and broader coverage of freedom of expression and media freedom issues in future reports, because this year's is, as you say, a very slight coverage.

  616.  In relation to the British Government's policy, I think you make an extremely valuable proposal in your paper that the British Government should be thoroughly proactive within the Commonwealth and try to see that the Harare Declaration is supplemented by clear provisions on freedom of expression. Is the present government being supportive about that or is it just being agnostic about it? How do you find that proposal is going with the present government?
  (Mr Carver)  We understood, before the Edinburgh Summit, that there was some interest from the government in pushing the idea of a freedom of expression declaration. I suspect that this got overtaken perhaps by more immediate issues that came up at that Summit. We certainly felt and continue to feel that some sort of mechanism is needed within the Commonwealth that applies to all members. We welcomed the expansion of the CMAG mandate but the problem with that is it still singles out a small number of particularly bad performers rather than requiring all Commonwealth members, as a condition of membership, to continue to adhere to the principles in the Harare Declaration. We think those principles have to be made rather more concrete so that adherence to them can be measured. It has to be applied across the board. We were very disappointed at the March meeting of CMAG that no discussion, as far as we could understand, took place on any countries other than the three countries already within the CMAG mandate, so that other countries such as Kenya, Cameroon and Zambia, which were the particular ones that we had raised with CMAG, were not considered. We understand from Mr Lloyd that he did raise at least the question of Cameroon, which we very much welcomed, within that and indeed that is one of the examples that is reflected in the Human Rights Report. We welcome the active role that the government seems to be taking on Cameroon. That has to be broadened out. It cannot be a matter of singling out particular countries; it has to be applying those principles to all Commonwealth members.
  (Mr Smart)  We have seen a process with the Commonwealth of the Commonwealth rather reluctantly taking on more and more, focusing on human rights issues with the Nigeria problem, the creation of CMAG. Our sense is that there is still an in-built reluctance, that this will possibly disturb the club; yet in other fora one can see the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression very much under-resourced. Certainly one of our recommendations to the Foreign Office is that, if some resources can be given to helping that mechanism, it will be useful. We see now that OSCE and the Inter American Commission both have media freedom rapporteurs. Many Commonwealth countries—some are in Africa; some are in Asia—have no regional mechanisms of this sort. Indeed, not only a declaration on freedom of expression I think would be a useful addition to the Harare Declaration but some thought also would then need to be given to a mechanism that can translate that resolution into real effect and give some assistance to Commonwealth governments in meeting the obligations that, in a sense, they have already entered into under Harare, a significant number of which they are failing.


  617.  Obviously at CMAG Britain is just one of the other countries and therefore you would have to lobby the other countries as well.
  (Mr Smart)  Yes.
  (Mr Carver)  We do indeed do that.

Mr Godman

  618.  You have referred to the sparse coverage given to media freedom in this first report of this administration. I do not seem to recall many reports produced by the last administration which dealt in a comprehensive way with media freedom. I would agree with you that the coverage is, if you like, somewhat sparse but what about the reports of other nations? Do they give more coverage to this important issue? Have you read the most recent American annual report? What about the Irish Government's report of the work of its Foreign Office? Is there a country's report which should serve as a benchmark for this administration and which country is that?
  (Mr Smart)  It is very difficult to say. I am certainly familiar with the US State Department reports. I think the Foreign Office has made it clear all the way along and recently repeated that they did not want to go for something similar to the State Department's report. That contains much more detailed information about countries' practices in terms of freedom of expression and media freedom. As I understand it, the Foreign Office approach is that they were seeking in this report to report more on their activities rather than their assessment of other countries, which I think is itself valid. I am not familiar with the Irish report. I am not sure there is an off the shelf model that one can take.

  619.  I did not say "an off the shelf model"; I said a benchmark. Is there, for example, a Member State of the European Union that deals with this very important issue in a more comprehensive and, to your mind, a more satisfactory way than it has been dealt with by previous administrations here or by the present Foreign Office team?
  (Mr Smart)  Not to my knowledge, no. I may be wrong but I am not familiar with any report by European governments addressing media freedom issues in a comprehensive way.

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