Conventional media — radio, television, the newspapers and now the new social or web-based media should play a positive and informative role in society.
Media freedom is in fact the right to free and open debate and the freedom of expression. The freedom of thought and expression has evolved over a long period of time – from cave drawings in the stone-age, giving personal impressions of everyday life to today’s need to be informed, inform and be heard.
The journey has been a long and turbulent one; it dates back to the social upheavals in the 18th and 19th centuries, i.e. to the struggle for individual rights and freedoms. Voltaire, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, is known to have said that he was willing to sacrifice his own life to secure the right to free expression and the opinions he personally disagreed with.
Today the media is seen as the watchdog of the public against corrupt and tyrannical governments.
Over the years the freedom of speech has been adapted to suit social and cultural needs and has become a tool for the emancipation of society. Today the right to the “freedom to receive and disseminate information and ideas through any media” is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, along with promoting the freedom of expression, the need for its restriction too has appeared. Certain types of speech such as ‘hate speech’ - create conditions for the outbreak of violence, a breakdown of law, threatens and endangers the rights and lives of others and causes mental anguish.
John Lord writing in ‘The Australian Independent Media network’ speaks of the abuse of the freedom of expression, referring to the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and its pastor Phelps, which in 2011 picketed the funeral of Matthew Synder, a member of the US Marine Corps who was killed in battle; with placards like “Thank God for dead soldiers,” You’re Going to Hell,” God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” and one that combined the US Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi “Always Faithful” or “Always Loyal”, with a slur against gay men. The fact that Matthew was not gay was irrelevant.
"Certain types of speech such as ‘hate speech’ create conditions for the outbreak of violence, a breakdown of law, threatens and endangers the rights and lives of others and causes mental anguish"
Matthew’s father Albert took umbrage at the behaviour of the Church. He was suffering the reality of every parent’s nightmare - the death of a loved child and grief a trauma in itself, worsened by the added agony the protests evoked.
He sued Phelps and the church for intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million.
The federal appeal court in Richmond threw out the verdict and said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability. The Supreme Court agreed saying: “A grieving father’s pain over mocking protests at his marine son’s funeral must yield to the first Amendment (of the US Constitution) protection of free speech”!!!
The media in Sri Lanka too on occasion, has been guilty of unprovoked attacks on particular individuals. Here the favourite targets appear to be celebrities.
Our national cricketers too have come in for their share of unfair criticism…
Just a few months ago the media was screaming for the head of the recently appointed stand-in national T-20 captain, because of a rude remark he made to a journalist.
The stand-in captain - in fact a village youth who by dint of sheer hard work rose from a so-to-say local-yokel standard to the rank of one of the best international fast bowlers in our era.
The single incident led to the player being accused of swollen-headedness and addressed/labelled with all manner of names…
At the recently concluded World Cup T-20 series the captain showed both humility and greatness when he readily accepted advice from his senior players. A blistering spell of bowling and great teamwork saw Sri Lanka victorious at that must-win match recently.
The next day sports pundits prophesied the appointment of the stand-in captain as regular captain… not a hint of an apology at the unfair criticism and name-calling which had been directed against him and had had the effect of literally turning him from a cricketing idol into an ogre to the cricket-loving public.
More recently two of Sri Lanka’s senior-most and world renowned international batsmen were at the receiving end of a severe media bashing -the reason they had apparently announced their retirement from the T-20 form of the game!!!
Sections of the press went to town lambasting the duo labelling them traitors to Sri Lanka’s cricketing cause etc.
The criticisms served no public good; in fact the comments were definitely not good for team morale especially as the criticism was made in the middle of the T-20 World Cup series.
The two batsmen together with their captain played a major role in Sri Lanka winning the T-20 World Cup.
At the end of the game the two senior players were carried round the grounds on the shoulders of their teammates.
Literally a slap in the face of their (cricketers’) detractors, not unexpectedly, on the part of the scribes there was neither breast-beating nor even a simple ‘mia culpa’ …
So what ails the journalistic community in the country? What is it that brings about these sudden bouts of journalistic extremism?
Could it be that we journalists - who on many occasions at the risk to life and limb have striven tirelessly for so long at our trade, are jealous at the spectacular rise in the fortunes of these young men who like us come from village or middle class origins?
Whereas we strive for a pittance, despite our experience and knowledge, these young men have achieved not only super-star status but also vast wealth.
Or could it be the lack of media freedom in this country that is making us journalists look for soft targets as our lives could be in danger if we, having identified the true enemies of the people hold them up to public gaze?
And we do have reason to be afraid, according to the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index Sri Lanka ranks 163rd out of 179 countries.
During the days of the civil war, Sri Lanka was known as one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist.
Even five years after the civil war ended, attacks on journalists have not ceased.
Local reporters in the country continue to be threatened, as was the case with 54-year-old M.I. Rahmathulla, who was beaten in April 2009 for reporting on political corruption in the Batticaloa region of Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province
The Tamil media in Sri Lanka suffered the most number of attacks both during and after the ethnic war.
Though the war is long over, not a single killer of journalists has been brought to book.
A subtle reminder perhaps to journalists, that the same fate could befall them if they dared displease the powers that be.
Among internationally famed Sri Lankan journalists who have met untimely ends are D. Sivaram/Taraki, Editor Tamilnet/correspondent Daily Mirror and Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor of the ‘Sunday Leader’.
According to published figures 19 journalists have been killed since 1989.
So what ails Sri Lanka’s journalists? It’s time to look back, rethink and relearn.