Thursday, 24 October 2019

POLITICAL NOTES


CETINJE  FORUM
GOVERNMENT HOUSE, CETINJE, MONTENEGRO 2019

Closing address to the 21st Cetinje Forum Monday 30 September 2019
JOHN AUSTIN – FORMER LABOUR MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT UK


John Austin addressing the Cetinje Forum Sept 2019 


As the theme of this forum has been the media and parliament, I am not sure of my qualifications to speak today.  I have been retired for ten years, hold no political or public office and am not accountable to anyone.  Nor am I journalist, unless you accept the definition by Patrik Penninckx* that, in these days of social media, we are all unregulated journalists now.  But I have also been asked to comment on the role of the Forum and inter-Parliamentary dialogue.

Earlier this month, following the UK/Canada sponsored Global Conference on Media Freedom, the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union held a seminar on media freedom in London whose declared goal was to mobilise parliaments to speak up for media freedom.  The urgent tone of that conference reflected an acknowledgement by many that the decline in press freedom around the world - evidenced by record number of killings and imprisonment of journalists - represents a threat to free societies and to the rule of law.

Earlier this month the U.K. Parliament's cross party Foreign Affairs Committee published a stinging report criticising the U.K. Government's response to the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, the killing of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, and the kid glove attitude to Turkey despite sweeping evidence of violations of media freedom. The UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee report said that government initiatives should "move beyond the rhetoric and demonstrate real impact in defence of media freedom" and criticised the government for having been "too reliant on the goodwill of governments who have been the worst perpetrators".

But alongside the protection that must be afforded to journalists, there are also concerns about the takeover or media capture by political and partisan forces and in some countries the misuse of state resources for party political ends such has been seen in Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Hungary and Brazil.   I would draw your attention to a recent presentation** given by theUniversity of Sheffield to the BGIPU seminar, which shows clear media bias in Poland in support of the governing party.

But also, as Patrick Penninckx* has said, the concentration of media ownership in a few hands is of major concern in many countries, including my own.  Consideration needs to be given to the kind of regulation that might be needed to ensure diversity in ownership and control of the media.

But in addition to the media, we must recognise the important role that NGOs play in holding public institutions to account and the need for parliamentarians to protect them.  Of course rules of transparency need to apply to NGOs but NGOs are not enemies of the state when they criticise governments, politicians or political parties.  They are one of the checks and balances that are an essential part of the democratic process in a free society.

Margareta Cederfelt* spoke of the vital scrutiny role of MPs.  It should not need saying, but Parliamentarians themselves need protection if they are to fulfil their scrutiny role in holding the executive to account.  That is why the watchdog role played by the IPU through its Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians is so important.

Since scrutiny is one of the major roles played by MPs, I hope you will forgive an impertinent comment from a guest on parliamentary boycotts – which seem to be a recurring feature in some parts of this region.

As a partisan aside, strangely, in my country it’s not the opposition but the Prime Minister and the government who seem to want to boycott Parliament.

Parliamentarians must make their own decisions based on their own situations but I would like to draw your attention, and to the attention of any political parties advocating boycotts who are not here today, some recent research carried out in this region, commissioned by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy*** which provides evidence to suggest that political parties carrying out boycotts were in a worse regulatory environment when they returned to parliament than before.  Absence of MPs from parliament also means less scrutiny.

For parliaments to function it is vital that there is dialogue between MPs from differing parties but there is also a need for dialogue between parliamentarians from different countries – a need that has been partly met in this region through the Cetinje Forum but we should welcome and support other initiatives.

Following the Western Balkans Summit in London last year, the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union convened a parliamentary seminar focussed on the need for the role of Parliaments to be strengthened in the Berlin Process. At that seminar, one of my successors as Chair of the British Group of the IPU, John Whittingdale, welcomed the initiative of the Bulgarian Parliament who were organising a seminar on the Western Balkans later that month in conjunction with the European Parliament and he expressed the hope that regional parliamentary meetings would continue. He also stressed the importance of including young people and women in the political processes and referred to the work of the Regional Youth Co-operation Council and its unique network of young people.

The importance of parliaments involving other sections of society in the dialogue was touched on by Violeta Tomic* who referred to the need to involve under-represented and marginalised groups in society and of the growth of hate speech and fake news. We need mechanisms for engaging with women, young people and under-represented groups.  

It is also important to ask how people get their news and information.  My generation received news mainly from the printed media and broadcasting. My children’s generation receive their information less from newspapers and more from television and, more recently, social media.  My grandchildren’s generation, however, receive almost all of their news and information from peers and through social media.

Regulating the printed and broadcast media has thrown up problems – finding a balance between free speech and regulation, openness and privacy, and ensuring diversity in media ownership and control has proved difficult.

Social media throws up a new set of problems. How do you control fake news and hate speech?  With the printed and broadcast media it should be relatively easy because you know who said what.  But how do you regulate or fact-check social media?  The issue was raised by one of the contributors from the floor who referred to the use of bots, mechanically generated messaging, following filters and use of algorithms that draw us into echo chambers reinforcing our preconceived views and cultural tribalism.  

We see the use of sock puppets, false identities established with the aim of deception and manipulation of public opinion.  These are real challenges for our legislators with no easy solutions, but hopefully dialogues like today, between the media professionals and parliamentarians will help.

I conclude with some remarks about this Forum.  In 2002/2003, as Chair of the British Group of the IPU, I was approached by some Montenegrins, including the Deputy Speaker of the then State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, for support from the BGIPU to set up a Parliamentary Forum for the Balkans.  I think they might have been expecting some financial support, which we were unable to provide, but we did give active support and advice and encouragement and it led to the convening of the first Cetinje Forum here in 2004.  A forum for dialogue in a region which was emerging from war and national, ethnic and political conflict – a dialogue in keeping with the spirit and aims of the founders of the IPU, the French MP Frédéric Passy and the UK’s William Randall Cremer, who in 1889 had brought parliamentarians together to engage in dialogue to promote representative democracy and peace.  


2004, left to right Vlado Šibalić ,BGIPU Secretary Kenneth Courtenay, John Austin and Deputy Speaker Dr Milorad Drlevic. Dr Drlevic and his parliamentary adviser Vlado Šibalić were instrumental in the creation of the Forum but both left political office after independence. Dr Drlevic now heads the Medicines and Medical Devices Agency in Podgorica.

I was pleased to be invited to the first Cetinje Forum in 2004 together with my colleague Nigel Evans MP, who went on to become Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons – we come from different parties and from opposite wings of those parties and we have deep and profound political differences. We argue, and on some issues we find common ground, but where we don’t that doesn’t end the dialogue.  


2019 left to right Milorad Drlevic, John Austin and Vlado Šibalić at the Medicines and Medical Devices Agency, Podgorica.  Vlado Šibalić has recently returned to a post with the parliament in Montenegro.


Having addressed the first Forum in 2004, I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to return to address this 21st Cetinje Forum, celebrating your 15th Anniversary. I wish to congratulate our hosts, the Parliament of Montenegro for today’s event and we can reflect on a remarkable achievement of 15 years of dialogue. I look forward to the Cetinje Forum going from strength to strength in the coming years, contributing to peace and stability in this beautiful region.

ENDS

*refers to speakers who contributed to the debate
Patrik Penninckx – Head of Information Society Department, Council of Europe
Margareta Cederfelt – Vice-President OSCE Parliamentary Assembly
Violeta Tomić – Member of Parliament, Slovenia

**Sheffield University presentation to BGIPU Seminar

***The WFD Report can be found at:

Details of the BGIPU Seminar can be found at




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