Friday, May 01, 2009

Ahead of World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day is on May 3. An organisation called Reporters Without Borders (RWB) is campaigning for the release of three women journalists who have been “taken hostage” by governments. Four members of RWB have been on a hunger strike since 28 April in support of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who has been sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on a charge of spying for the United States.
Saberi has herself been on hunger strike since 21 April in protest against her conviction on a trumped-up charge. According to an email I received from RWB, the latter is taking over her hunger strike so that she does not have to continue it herself. Beginning May3, similar protests will be staged in Canada, the United States, Britain, Belgium and Spain.

RWB is also seeking the release of two American journalists employed by California-based Current TV, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who have been held in Pyongyang since March 17. The detention of Saberi, Lee and Ling on arbitrary charges demonstrates more than ever the importance of World Press Freedom Day, says the RWB email. RWB has appealed to Iranian and North Korean authorities to free the three women without delay.
If you wish to learn more about the RWB protests on behalf of Roxana Saberi, log on to http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=30949

In the same email, RWB mentions about the Sri Lankan government’s “brutal campaign against the press and dissident voices”. The extract presents an alarming picture: Sri Lanka, the email says, of all the countries with an elected democratic government, is the least respectful of media freedom. Press access has been restricted to the north of the country and also to the Jaffna peninsula, it added. The situation stated is alarming because Sri Lankan media, known for its high quality standards and investigative skills, now seems gagged. The email also refers to Tamil separatists trying to gag journalists through threats and propaganda, on the subject of their defeat and crimes against civilians. The following extract from the email raises concern about press freedom in Sri Lanka:

“Violence against the press that was for a long time restricted to the Tamil media, now affects journalists working in Sinhalese and English. Armed men attacked the popular TV station Sirasa of the MTV group, apparently because it was not sufficiently ‘patriotic’. Editor of the highly independent Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, was assassinated in Colombo, in January 2009. Police have proved incapable of arresting the suspects, as in every case of murder and assaults against journalists in the past three years.” The email also mentions the imprisonment of three journalists, including “two of the most independent, J. S. Tissainayagam of the Sunday Times and N. Vithyatharan of the Uthayan press group. They have all being arrested without any evidence against them.”

As a writer and editor in a country known for its press freedom (except during the dark days of the Emergency), I, like most journalists throughout the world, am saddened by such reports. I would like to believe that a lot of which is mentioned in the email is not true. Even if it is, I do hope that Sri Lankan authorities will give the media the freedom that is its due.

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