The Council of Europe must be prepared to confront states that fail to respect the rule of law.
In many parts of Europe, this is not a good time to be a journalist. The editor of a Turkish daily newspaper was arrested earlier this month for allegedly insulting president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Twitter.
Another Turkish journalist is said to be facing more than 23 years in prison for reporting claims that a housing lottery was rigged in favour of judges and prosecutors associated with her country’s ruling party. Closer to home, new surveillance laws in France have left journalists unable to protect their sources.
All this I learn from a new website, ponderously named ‘platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists’. Though the reports it carries are posted by independent media organisations, the website is hosted by the Council of Europe (CoE) – the 47-member organisation best known for running the human rights court in Strasbourg. What’s unique about it is that the CoE forwards each report to the relevant government and publishes any response received.
This is very welcome but much more needs to be done. Thorbjørn Jagland, the CoE’s secretary general, reported recently that almost half his member states could not guarantee that journalists would be safe from the risk of violence or threats. Even where the situation was satisfactory, a significant number of member states were ‘regressing’ and more than a third were ‘experiencing a deterioration in protection for journalists’.
So the CoE invited writers, lawyers and others with an interest in freedom of expression to a two-day public conference in Strasbourg last week. It was supposed to consider whether freedom of expression was still a precondition of democracy. But the answer to that was so embarrassingly obvious – as at least one speaker pointed out – that the discussion turned instead to ways of restoring free speech in countries where it was under attack. I was asked to give the opening keynote speech and moderate the first session.
The secretary general has started publishing annual reports on the state of democracy in Europe. These would make interesting reading if they identified problems in individual countries. But they do not, apparently to avoid the risk that publication would be vetoed by the states concerned. To achieve any sort of impact, I argued, Jagland needed to name and shame the worst offenders.
The CoE’s parliamentary assembly did just that in a resolution passed earlier this year, criticising the authorities in Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. But when I referred to the resolution in an early draft of my speech, I was asked by CoE officials if I could avoid naming individual countries at that point in the proceedings. I understood this to be because Turkish officials would be present and were supporting the conference.
It was an ironic way of reminding me that the CoE survives on diplomacy. But I don’t – and so I argued that the CoE should be prepared to suspend or even expel states that failed to respect the rule of law. There is little point in having a court that draws measured distinctions between freedom of expression and hate speech – or between free speech and privacy – if adverse rulings are ignored by the states concerned.
But expelling a country would deprive its citizens of access to the court. And states are reluctant to judge each other too harshly for fear that it might be their turn next. Jagland, a former prime minister of Norway, understands only too well that he is the servant of CoE members rather than their master.
These dynamics are of particular importance because Jagland was in London at the end of last week to see Michael Gove. The justice secretary will have told CoE officials that he is expecting to publish his consultation paper on a bill of rights early in December. And Gove will also have made it clear to Jagland that, despite the Strasbourg court’s ruling 10 years ago, convicted prisoners in the UK still won’t be allowed to vote.
That’s not the message this consummate diplomat would have been hoping to hear. Far better, he might think, to include this troublesome issue in the government’s consultation and kick it into the long grass for yet another year. The last thing he wants is confrontation.
But a row with the CoE might be just what Gove needs to persuade his backbenchers (and his prime minister) that his largely symbolic proposals would make a difference.
Sooner or later, then, the CoE will have to talk tough. If it allows the UK to ignore the court’s ruling on prisoners’ votes and any future judgments that ministers don’t like, how is it going to get other states to respect more important rulings from the court on matters such as freedom of expression? If you act like a doormat, people will walk all over you.