OBSERVING Press Freedom in Sri Lanka

The valour of the pen during self-censorship

T homas Jefferson in a letter to James Currie on January 28, 1786 wrote “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost”. Although this golden age of freedom of expression has been abridged by the practical needs of economy, individual rights and evolving legal constraints—the freedom of the media still remains an important tenet of democracy. At a time when Sri Lanka is attempting to rebuild and reconcile links that were lost and destroyed through years of suppression, the media plays a large role in facilitating a dialogue of understanding. However due to the various constraints placed on the media from outside sources, and the even more stifling fetters it places on itself; the public loses out on an unbiased and informed discourse that could bring about real amity between communities as well as between the government and the people. On World Press Freedom Day, which falls today, Daily Mirror sought the views of prominent media personnel.

 “Independence is merely a theoretical concept”

Sam Wijesinghe
Chairman, Dispute Resolution Council of the Sri Lanka Press Complaints Commission

We live in a dependent world, so this whole concept of independence is a theoretical concept. A newspaper is published by an individual or company, what is the motive behind this? What is the motive behind most people? It is profit, so when a man starts a newspaper he wants to make a profit out of it. How does a newspaper get an income? Mainly through advertisements; so the owners are dependent on the advertisers.

Media play a big part in government and governments are mostly elected by people. Abraham Lincoln said in 1864 that democracy is government of the people, by the people for the people. But this is not the case today; it is a government of the rich for the rich.

Almost every country calls its self a democratic or socialist entity or both. What do these words mean? If Sri Lanka was called “the Republic of Sri Lanka” it may be the same thing. In most democracies, when there is a crisis one man comes to power. If you take the 1939-1945 war, Chamberlain could not handle it by himself therefore, Churchill was called in and he was given immense power to fight the war.

Those who get elected are in debt; their primary objective when they are elected is to repay debts. We are all familiar with how they repay these debts. President Bush invaded Iraq, ruined it and gave 10 American companies the contracts to rebuild it and they are still trying to rebuild it.

Even in this country, the President knows that most members in his government are in debt and he devises new methods of helping his MP’s to repay their debts.

Like I said at the beginning we cannot have a completely independent press.

 “The world knows what is happening but that does not mean we are safe”

I think that today press freedom in the country is decreasing rapidly, things are getting worse everyday. There are increasingly more forces that are attempting to curtail the voice of the media.

In the past, attacks on the media were tolerated for the sake of national security - when the war was going on – however, today there can be no such excuse yet things are much worse than during the time of the war. The situation in Jaffna is terrible; we have all heard of the attacks on Uthayan.

One thing that we can be happy about today is that at least the outside world knows of what is happening. In the past when the Indian Peace Keeping Forces first came to Sri Lanka they attacked two presses, but this was revealed to the world only two years later. When I worked at Uthayan we had to publish the paper while the IPKF was within our premises. However recently, when Uthayan was attacked the diplomatic community found out about the incident and international media reported on it—this caused the people and the international community to raise a voice against it. The world knows what is happening to the media in this country—but that does not mean we are safe. I think, for there to be reconciliation and true peace and amity in this country and between communities, there needs to be press freedom. I think if the government has a will to ensure press freedom in this country, they will find a way to do it.

 ‘Accept dissent’ – Editors’ Guild tells government

Siri Ranasinghe President, Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka

This is the 20th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day which is recognised by the United Nations in commemoration of all those who have made sacrifices to their lives, limbs, liberty, and the wellbeing of their families to defend the Freedom of the Press and to honour those who continue to do so all over the world.

Sri Lanka has a very poor record of Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression. In the world index, we are embarrassingly low down the order of countries that respect both the Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression.

 Freedom of the Press is not an inanimate matter. It is not something that concerns only publishers and practitioners. It is something that is at the very root of Democracy and the exchange of ideas in an enlightened and healthy society that the people of this country have inherited for decades.

 On our part, we have taken our responsibilities very seriously. We have established a self-regulatory mechanism in the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka that accepts complaints and provides redress to the public for erroneous publications in the National Press; we have set up a College of Journalism for school-leavers and mid-career journalists; we have an Editors’ Code of Professional Practice that provides guidelines for ethical reporting; and we have a Sri Lanka Press Institute that looks into raising the standards of journalism in Sri Lanka.

 On the government’s part, we expect it to respect media professionals who have a duty cast upon them to keep the citizenry informed. We urge the Government to accept dissent as part of a democratic and liberal society. We urge the Government to safeguard the lives of working journalists and to permit them to engage in their legitimate profession as provided for in the country’s Constitution.

 Several media unions including publishers, editors, journalists, media activists and workers have jointly and separately called on the Government to introduce media law reforms in accordance with the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility of 1998 (revised in 2008). These include the repeal of the Press Council Act, the introduction of a Right to Information Act and the enactment of a Contempt of Court Act as a priority. We sincerely hope the Government would give ear to these longstanding requests from the Sri Lankan media.

 Permit me to salute those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defending the Freedom of the Press and the Freedom of Expression over the years; those who have been victims of ‘hit squads’ that have been permitted to function with impunity in recent years; and those who steadfastly continue to uphold the right to Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression, as we commemorate this significant day worldwide, including in Sri Lanka.

May 3 World Press Freedom Day

 “Reflecting public opinion  does not mean arousing  communal hatred”

Giving the latest news and articles on those subject matters for the enlightenment of the reader are not only the most important duty of a newspaper. A newspaper in a democratic set up should also have access to mingle among the people and learn their problems and publish them, so that public opinions could be created and solutions put forward.

Creating public opinions does not mean rabble-rousing or creating communal hatred, but when a certain category of people are being discriminated in their fundamental rights, the newspaper should certainly take a stand and express its opinions and try to set aright the misgivings of the affected people.

Publishing a news paper in a province and that also in an area where predominantly Tamil-speaking people live cannot keep its eyes closed to the plights and problems faced by them.

So necessarily and usually when a provincially established newspaper tries to air out the grievances of the people and forward their opinion to those concerned for solutions, does not mean creating communal hatred as some people try to establish.

The UTHAYAN newspaper and its journalists are being targeted by the pawn that may be at some instances termed as unidentified gangs only for the above reason - since it has largest circulation in the North.

Free expression of opinion is guaranteed in the constitution and the U.N. Charter also affirms it. So expressing grievances of the people and calling for solutions are surely not contrary to the Human Rights Charter.

In a democratic setup, curbing the expression of opinion is tantamount to throttling the very fundamental rights of the people. And this kind of situation will ultimately lead the country to a dictatorship.

In view of the Provincial Council elections round the corner, the Government law-enforcing authorities and also the political parties should make it a point to confirm the norms of our Constitution and International standards.

 “Obsolete laws still stifling media freedom”

Lasantha Ruhunage
President, Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association

Journalists are celebrating world press freedom day in the backdrop of a lot of intimidation and harassment to themselves and the media organisations; there are a number of reasons for the formation of such a precarious situation for the media.
There have been very violent attacks on the media during the past few years; media personnel go missing, they are abducted, and they are assaulted and threatened.  This leads us to the conclusion that the attacks on the media take place with the blessing of the government or the government willingly turns a blind eye to the intimidation of the media. We find it hard to believe that the Police are unable to bring these perpetrators to task, because they have shown acumen in capturing criminals of all sorts in the past few years.

“Media practices self-censorship for the sake of security”

Sunil Jayasekera
General Secretary, Free Media Movement

This year as we celebrate World Press Freedom Day; the Sri Lankan media is facing a dire situation and a crisis of faith. I have two reasons for saying this; firstly, the media today is faced with a series of very threatening external forces. Media institutions, personnel and activists are being threatened and intimidated or they are being attacked outright. If you take the number of media persons who have been attacked as a proportion of our population, it is a very scary statistic. Therefore it is almost impossible for the free media to function in an environment of this nature. What is worse is that there is no justice, for all the men and women who have been attacked and for all the institutions that have been attacked.

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