Media freedom at a time of crisis

31 October 2018 12:01 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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While Sri Lanka faces a political crisis, the United Nations on Friday marks the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists worldwide.  

The UN says that for the past twelve year, 2006-2017, close to 1010 journalists have been killed for reporting the news and bringing information to the people. In nine out of ten cases the killers go unpunished. Impunity leads to more killings and is often a symptom of worsening conflict and the breakdown of law and judicial systems.  

The United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) says it is concerned that impunity damages whole societies by covering up serious human rights abuses, corruption, and crime. The UN General Assembly proclaimed November 2 as the ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’ and in a Resolution, it urged Member States to implement definite measures countering the present culture of impunity. The date was chosen in commemoration of the assassination of two French journalists in Mali on November 2, 2013.

This landmark resolution condemns all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers. It also urges Member States to do their utmost to prevent violence against journalists and media workers, to ensure accountability, bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against journalists and media workers, and ensure that victims have access to appropriate remedies. It also calls upon States to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference.  

According to the UN, besides about 1000 journalists who were killed from 2006 to 2017, many more journalists on a daily basis suffer from non-fatal attacks, including torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, intimidation and harassment in both conflict and non-conflict situations. Furthermore, there are specific risks faced by women journalists, including sexual attacks.  

Worryingly, only one in ten attacks committed against media workers over the past decade has led to a conviction. This impunity emboldens the perpetrators of the crimes and at the same time has a chilling effect on society including journalists themselves. Impunity breeds impunity and feeds into a vicious cycle.   When attacks on journalists remain unpunished, a negative message is sent that reporting the “embarrassing truth” or “unwanted opinions” will get ordinary people in trouble. Furthermore, society loses confidence in its own judiciary system which is meant to protect everyone from attacks on their rights. Perpetrators of crimes against journalists are thus emboldened when they realize they can attack their targets without ever facing justice, the UN warns.  

In Sri Lanka one of the trying periods for journalists and the free-media was during the war as in any armed conflicts around the world. In Sri Lanka 16 journalists and media workers were killed from during that period since 2005, according to the International Committee to Protect Journalists. Though trials were held in certain cases they have dragged on and no one has been convicted.  The case that got the widest prominence was the brutal murder of the Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in a high security zone near his newspaper office at Ratmalana on January 8, 2009. Lanka-Enews journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared on the night of January 24, 2010 and he is feared to have been killed. This case has also dragged on though in 2015 the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government promised to bring to justice those involved in these and other killings. On the night of April 5, 2005, widely respected newspaper analyst Dharmarantam Sivaram was abducted and found dead the next morning with gunshot wounds in the head. Four unidentified men are reported to have forced Sivaram into a jeep as he left a restaurant opposite the Bambalapitya police station. News websites reported that his body was found in a high-security area behind a parliament building.  

In addition to the killings, several journalists were abducted or assaulted and tortured. Prominent among them was investigative journalist and political analyst Keith Noyahr who was abducted and brutally beaten up for about seven hours on the night of May 22, 2008. There were also several attacks on Udayan Newspaper in Jaffna, the MTV Group, the Siyatha and others. Since 2015 there have been no physical attacks or killings of journalists. We hope media freedom would survive through the current political crisis.

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