On its website the Foreign and Commonwealth Office claims that 'we’re strengthening the Commonwealth as a focus for democratic practice and development. We’re working with the Commonwealth Secretariat to strengthen its institutions so it promotes human rights, democratic values and the rule of law.' It continues: 'we’re engaging with civil society across the Commonwealth.'
In the light of this declaration one would expect the FCO to welcome this week’s conference in London by the Commonwealth Journalists Association. The would-be participants spend their lives, often at high personal risk, to bring the truth to their followers in their own countries. They include many of the best and bravest editors and reporters. I say 'would-be' because some have been denied the chance to attend by their governments.
But others – shamefully – have been frustrated by our government.
British government officials have refused these heroes entry visas to the UK. Instead of being able to enjoy a few days safety and respite in the company of fellow journalists from the 53 Commonwealth countries, they have been snubbed and made to feel even more alone and vulnerable.
Victims of this blinkered British government policy include journalists from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Uganda. These are countries where journalists who try and tell the truth are often threatened, and sometimes even pay with their lives.
The British government knows and recognizes this. Indeed only last week Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Tobias Ellwood issued a strong statement in the wake of the brutal murder of Nazimuddin Samad, the Bangladesh blogger who was hacked to death by fanatics for expressing liberal views.
Tobias Ellwood professed himself ‘shocked and appalled’ and announced that he ‘strongly condemned this attack on free speech.’ And yet I can reveal that three of Bangladesh’s most distinguished and brilliant journalists have been denied entry by the British government for this week’s conference.
Farid Hossain, vice president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association chapter in Bangladesh, is one. Abdul Jalil Bhuiyan, the CJA treasurer, is another victim. So is Humayun Rashid Chowdhury, joint secretary.
Other outstanding journalists snubbed by Britain include Ehsan Sehar, President of the Rural Media Network of Pakistan and the Sri Lankan journalist Zacki Jabbar.
When I spoke to Rita Payne, the CJA President, she told me:
'It's taken months of work to raise funds to put this conference together. We are bitterly disappointed that key members from our overseas branches are unable to attend either because their visa applications were rejected or their visas arrived too late. Our conferences, which take place in a different Commonwealth country every three years are an opportunity for members to meet and share concerns and information about the state of the media in their countries. This is the first time in nearly forty years that we have held this conference in London and our members are furious that they have been unable to attend.'
What makes this especially ironic is that as recently as December 2012 David Cameron joined Prime Ministers and Presidents of all 53 other Commonwealth countries in adopting the Commonwealth Charter.
Article 5 entitled 'Freedom of Expression' states:
'We are committed to peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media, and to enhancing democratic traditions and strengthening democratic processes.'
Unusually the Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth, signed the Charter in public at Marlborough House on Commonwealth Day 2013.
When Commonwealth Heads of Government met in Malta last November for their biennial summit David Cameron was there, and so was Philip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The latter's title is meant to remind us that Commonwealth citizens are not foreigners, they are supposed to be family.
There is an important item in the agreed statement to which Cameron and Hammond put their name in Malta. It is headed 'Movement of Commonwealth Citizens'. It proclaims 'the importance to the people of the Commonwealth of easier movement between member states of the Commonwealth for legitimate and temporary reasons in order to benefit from stronger economic, official and cultural cooperation'.
It also speaks of 'the proposal for a ‘Commonwealth Advantage’ under which all member governments would consider further possible measures to enhance the scope for Commonwealth citizens to access each others’ countries more easily and for longer than is currently possible'.
This will all sound very hollow indeed to journalists and other guests who had been expecting to attend this week's assembly in London from throughout the Commonwealth. Nor will it ring true with youth representatives invited to be in London for celebrations of Commonwealth Day last month.
Increasingly delegates chosen to play an important part in Commonwealth gatherings in the UK are being denied visas - even though they are respected regional leaders, and often work in the most challenging and dangerous of circumstances to uphold Commonwealth values of democracy, equality of opportunity and free speech.
The taxpayer supports no fewer than six ministers at the FCO. One of them is given specific responsibility for the Commonwealth: Hugo Swire MP. In this matter he has failed the Commonwealth. He has shown himself, in A. J. P. Taylor’s lapidary phrase about a now-forgotten minister, as 'another horse from Caligula’s well-filled stable.' When will our craven leaders and feeble officials recognise the value of the Commonwealth connection? And when will they match fine words with actions that are honourable?
We are all diminished by the very avoidable absence from London this week of front line Commonwealth defenders of free speech and human rights.
In her eloquent speech this morning the CJA President Rita Payne noted that 'journalists and other outspoken people are, more than ever, being threatened, harassed , assaulted and sometimes killed for doing their jobs.'
She talked of 'journalists being arrested abducted and tortured for criticism of police or exposing government malpractice; senior editors have been dismissed or arrested for refusing to reveal their sources; in some countries repressive laws are being introduced to silence the media. The victimisation and even the criminalisation of journalists is sadly becoming all too common in countries inside and outside the Commonwealth.'
Journalists who are victims of oppression in the Commonwealth and worldwide now know that they can expect nothing but bromides from the bureaucratic boobies of the FCO. Last night the CJA held a dinner, where Lord Black made a moving speech about the extraordinary sacrifices made by so many Commnwealth journalists. At the end of his speech Lord Black focused on the Ugandan media.
He spoke of how it has ‘long faced a perpetual litany of threats. Murder, kidnap, and politically-motivated or police brutality of journalists, as well as detention, censorship, criminal defamation, assault and destruction of media equipment, has persisted for decades.’
Lord Black went on:
‘It was into this atmosphere of constant menace that the Human Rights Network for Journalists for Uganda was born in 2006, the “new kid on the block” in the ceaseless battle for freedom of expression. Ten years on, the threats remain and could worsen, following this year's disputed presidential election. But the landscape has changed. Journalists still face oppression, but they do not stand alone. HRNJ-Uganda, under the leadership of their national co-ordinator Robert Ssempala and legal officer Diana Nandudu, are forever by their side – often literally and at personal risk, monitoring journalistic human rights and protecting them from abuse. When police beat up a broadcaster, Ssempala led the protest march – and was himself arrested.’
Lord Black announced that the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda would receive the Astor Award - named after the famous Observer editor David Astor, who loved Africa as much as he celebrated free speech.
Dritto Alice, President of CJA Uganda, was expected to collect the Astor Award on behalf of her heroic colleagues back home. Yet her visa arrived too late. I understand (but have not been able to confirm) that another representative had his visa denied.
There are times when I feel ashamed to be British and last night – thanks to the gutless inertia of Foreign Office ministers like Hugo Swire and Tobias Ellwood – was one of them. We should have done so much more to celebrate the courage and fearless dedication of our Commonwealth brothers and sisters.