Thursday, July 16, 2009

All is not well with the media in Sri Lanka

I received an email from Vincent Brossel, Asia-Pacific Desk, Reporters Without Borders, which seems to suggest that all is not well with the media in Sri Lanka. He refers to the International Mission group that includes the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the International Media Support (IMS), the International News Safety Institute (INSI), the International Press Institute (IPI), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), and the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC).

Also referring to the fact-finding and advocacy missions made by delegations from the International Press Freedom Mission to Sri Lanka in June 2007 and October 2008, he has drafted an open letter dated 16 July 2009 to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The letter makes it clear that conditions in the island nation are still not favourable for total press freedom. And that, coming after the annihilation of the LTTE, comes as a surprise. Many would have thought that once the LTTE terror was bypassed permanently, Sri Lanka would look ahead with confidence and allow its institutions to grow unfettered. If what Vincent’s mail suggests is correct, it is certainly cause for worry and anguish for the many courageous journalists in that country. I have had the opportunity to interact with student journalists from Sri Lanka and also the management and editors of a couple of leading newspaper chains in Sri Lanka and I have always found them to be extremely warm and thoroughly professional. Let us hope that conditions there improve soon enough and that Sri Lanka returns to being the country that it once was in the years before the 1980s.

Here are excerpts from the latter to the Sri Lankan President:

The International Press Freedom Mission to Sri Lanka is extremely concerned over the
ongoing spate of violent attacks against the media. However, in spite of the military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the deterioration of the press freedom situation in the country has continued. We welcome your recent statement ensuring the safety of Tamil-language media outlets following a series of harrowing attacks and death threats against their personnel. However, we believe that much needs to be done immediately to ensure that Sri Lanka’s journalists and independent news media in Sinhala, Tamil and English enjoy the freedom and safety to which they are entitled in a democracy.

The International Mission would therefore like to propose to you and your Government a 11-point plan to redress the perilous press freedom environment in Sri Lanka:

1. Combat impunity through the creation of a Special Prosecutor’s Office for the investigation of crimes against the media with full autonomy to investigate attacks on and assassinations of journalists and to bring those responsible to justice. Several journalists have been killed since 2007, and yet none of these murders has yet been solved.

2. In accordance with international standards on media freedom and freedom of expression, put in place effective measures to ensure that all journalists can work safely, in particular in areas where local council elections will soon take place such as Jaffna and Vavuniya.

3. Release imprisoned journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and his colleagues B. Jasiharan and V. Vallarmathy, who have been detained since March 2008 under the Emergency Regulations, and were later charged under the 2006 Prevention of Terrorism Act. Withdraw all unjustified complaints and lawsuits brought by the police and
government against journalists and freedom of expression activists and repeal legal provisions which may be used to punish journalists for engaging in legitimate media work, including those found in anti-terrorism legislation.

4. Release the first results of the investigation into the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009.

5. Provide full and unconditional access to the IDP camps for all media in order to report freely and fairly on the reconstruction process since the end of the war. The media can play a vital role in making sure that the reconstruction and reconciliation efforts are genuine and have real impact to bringing lasting peace.

6. Repeal the Press Council Act No. 5 of 1973, which includes powers to fine and/or impose criminal measures, including sentencing journalists, editors and publishers to lengthy prison terms. Instead, allow the media to strengthen the existing self-regulatory mechanism, in accordance with democratic practices.

7. Introduce training for the police, army and the intelligence agencies on freedom of expression and the important role of the media in a democratic society. Since 2007, security forces have been allegedly responsible for kidnapping, beating and threatening at least 30 journalists and media workers.

8. Award financial compensation to journalists who have been arbitrarily detained, beaten or otherwise harassed by security forces.

9. Invite the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom and Expression to visit Sri Lanka, in line with your Government’s commitments to the Human rights Council in 2006.

10. Work with the state-owned media to ensure the immediate end to direct verbal attacks and threats against independent journalists and press freedom activists, which has in particular promoted the unethical spread of accusations portraying the media as LTTE-supporters in a concerted hate campaign that has put several journalists lives in unnecessary danger.

11. Introduce structural legal reforms to create an enabling environment for a free and independent media including by transforming existing state media into independent public service media, with guaranteed editorial independence, by adopting a strong right to information law and by overhauling broadcast regulation to put it in the hands of an independent regulator with a mandate to regulate in the public interest.

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