As we mark World Press Freedom Day today, we are confronted by headlines as to whether we should celebrate this day or deadlines indicating whether it would be more appropriate to commemorate it in Sri Lanka.
Firstly, we need to turn the searchlight inward and see what has happened to journalism here. It was once a vocation, then became a profession. But sadly, now it appears to be largely a case of by-lines or buy-lines and a business for personal gain or glory. That may be the reasons why veteran Editors believe that any training now should focus more on what is journalism than how to be a good journalist.
The American publisher William Randolph Hearst once said “news is something that someone wants suppressed. The rest is advertising.” On that basis, media conferences, public meetings and similar events fall more into the category of advertising. Journalism essentially is investigative or deeply interpretative reporting or feature writing. Journalists need to be aware that they are the voice of the voiceless people, the instruments through which the sovereign people exercise their fundamental rights to the freedom of information and expression.
Another important principle is the commitment to fair, balanced and accurate reporting or feature writing. To what extent these and related principles are being sincerely practised in Sri Lanka is a big question in this era when the government media especially, have degenerated to the crudest forms of propaganda for the ruling party.
Therefore, there is obviously a need for a lot of inner healing to lift journalism from a pig sty to the realms of a vocation and the role we are expected to play as one of the pillars of democracy. In that spirit we could turn the searchlight on what is happening in our country. During the past nine years especially, media freedom has been suppressed to a large extent with some sections directly controlled by the Rajapaksa regime and others remotely controlled through billionaire businessmen who apparently give huge amounts of campaign funds to VVIPs in the ruling coalition.
"Journalists need to be aware that they are the voice of the voiceless people, the instruments through which the sovereign people exercise their fundamental rights to the freedom of information and expression. Another important principle is the commitment to fair, balanced and accurate reporting or feature-writing"
“Freedom of the Press 2014: A Global Survey of Media Independence”, the latest edition of an annual report published by Freedom House - an NGO established in 1941 and has been ranking countries worldwide since 1980, yesterday ranked Sri Lanka 167 out of 197 countries.
The Freedom of the Press report measures the level of media independence in 197 countries and territories based on a score assigned from 0 - 100, 0 being the most free and 100 being the least free.
Increased harassment of both local and foreign journalists trying to cover protests and sensitive news stories, as well as attacks on printing and distribution channels for private media and blocks on web content, led to a more constricted space for independent news, the report said.
The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice said since 2005, 34 journalists have been murdered while not a single murderer has been sentenced to prison and up to 25 journalists are fleeing the country every year.
Most senior independent journalists and political analysts say the first step toward restoring media freedom needs to be the implementation of the Right to Information bill, similar to the laws which India enacted recently and through which widespread corruption at the highest level was exposed to such an extent that India’s ruling Congress Party Coalition is facing almost certain defeat at the ongoing General Elections.
The freedom of information Bill which gives journalists and others access to documents and other information on important issues and huge projects, was finalised by the Ranil Wickremasinghe government in 2003 and was about to be presented in parliament when the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga carried out her infamous Constitutional coup. After her, the Rajapaksa regime has shown little or no interest in this important measure to restore media freedom. Even a private members’ motion introduced by the UNP’s Leadership Council Chairman Karu Jayasuriya was unceremoniously thrown out.
On this World Press Freedom Day we urge the Rajapaksa regime to implement this Bill and save Sri Lanka from the disgrace of getting worldwide publicity for the wrong reasons.