Media freedom in a country at war with itself
4th May 2008, Colombo, Sri Lanka: It is with deep disquiet that the Free Media Movement (FMM) recognises the World Press Freedom Day that falls today. This day is almost a cruel joke in a country farther away from meaningful press freedom than it has ever been in living memory. Sri Lanka today is country at war where all parties to the on-going violent conflict threaten media freedom and the freedom of expression, amongst other vital human rights. This includes the government. In fact, the significant deterioration of media freedom and the freedom of expression is a marker of an inexorable erosion of democratic governance. With it, the safety and security of media personnel and journalists has also diminished significantly. Today, we countenance a regime in the South that is a mirror image of the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) in its inability and unwillingness to engage with, in sincere, civil and progressive manner, issues related media freedom and the freedom of expression. The vicious language of hate and harm, a culture of impunity, open abuse of journalists, abductions and extra-judicial killings, the breakdown of the rule of law, the arbitrary actions against media by paramilitary groups sheltered by the Government, the shocking complicity of the Police in schemes to adduct senior journalists is a situation that media is placed in Sri Lanka today that beggars belief.
Accurate, impartial and responsible reporting is almost impossible in Sri Lanka today in relation to the war, corruption or matters related to the regime and its constituent members. Do so and simple yet effective Government propaganda based on post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacies – after this, therefore because of this – through the diarrheic commentary of its most outrageous apparatchiks names and shames courageous journalists as those who partial to or supportive of terrorists. Sometimes they are simply called terrorists themselves. As a result, media in the South is placed in a context no better than journalists under the diktat of the LTTE in the Vanni – there is perhaps the freedom to express oneself, but the consequences of doing so can be quite devastating. Blithely ignoring the vital importance of media freedom and the freedom of expression to any just and lasting peace, parties to the war shamelessly claim they safeguard the right of journalists to report in the public interest, but actively hunt them down when they do so. Free media is under unprecedented siege and journalists are losing the battle.
From May 2007 to May 2008, the FMM documented in detail note the following incidents:
- 2 journalists and media workers killed
- 2 journalists abducted
- More than 100 of the freedom of expression of journalists were documented by the FMM, affecting hundreds of journalists.
- 63 journalists were harassed, verbally or physically abused or otherwise violently prevented from carrying out their duties
- 15 journalists and media workers were arrested
- More than 25 journalists were displaced, forced to leave home and on occasion, country, because of threats they faced
- Unprecedented levels of hate speech by in the mainstream media by members of the regime, allied parties and government servants. Notable amongst these was hate speech and wholly unwarranted hearsay paraded as journalism on the Ministry of Defence website.
- 5 radio channels were taken off air
- 3 heads of State media institutions were removed from their posts without any reason
- 2 websites blocked with no explanation
- Coherent government media policy delayed despite calls for its urgent established by the media industry and journalists
- Journalist J.S. Tissainayagam was arrested by the much-feared Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) and held in continuous detention for the second month in succession. No charges have been made against him.
However, the most odious affront to media freedom was when a Government Minister and his gang of thugs stormed into the State run television broadcaster Rupavahini and assaulted its News Director in December 2007. Unequivocally condemned by all political parties and civil society, the Minister nevertheless got off scot-free. On the other hand, journalists of Rupavahini who stood up against the Minister’s brutish intrusion were assaulted, attacked and had to flee the country for their protection. The Minister, to this day, continues to verbally threaten and abuse journalists with total impunity. The regime takes great exception to the observations of political commentators who correctly point out that the President and a coterie of murderous brutes have egregiously undermined democracy and media freedom. Yet it is silent and indeed, conveniently brushes aside indubitable markers of a loathsome culpability in the significant deterioration of media freedom in Sri Lanka.
The FMM’s monthly report of incidents and frequent issuance of Press Releases related to attacks against media freedom and journalists over the past year is itself a damning indicator of the situation in Sri Lanka, a country that is now placed as the 3rd most dangerous country in the world for journalists to live and work in.
Though the FMM’s basic demands to support and strengthen media freedom in Sri Lanka remain unchanged the urgency for their implementation has grown over the past year. As we noted in our statement released on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day last year, media, acting in the interests of the public, have a responsibility to report critically on all actors involved in the on-going conflict including the Government and the LTTE. To harm the media, to threaten the media or otherwise seek to control free media is inimical to the fundamental tenets of democracy. In this light, we reiterate our demands to:
- Immediately halt all threats, harassment, abductions and attacks against media practitioners and outlets currently being perpetrated by all parties to the conflict;
- Undertake complete, transparent and timely investigations into the murder of media practitioners and death threats issued against media practitioners and their families;
- Halt the dangerous and irresponsible practice of publicly vilifying media practitioners;
- Reverse action already undertaken that restricts press freedom and freedom of expression and refrain from any moves to introduce any form of direct or indirect censorship
All parties to the violent conflict in Sri Lanka have a vital role to play in securing media freedom. The FMM strongly believes that the non-violent engagement with conflicting ideas, mediated in large part through professional new and traditional media, is a marker of a mature democracy.
As concerned journalists and media persons struggling to keep our profession alive, we sincerely hope that such a timbre of governance will come soon to Sri Lanka. Acknowledging as committed and professional journalists our responsibility in fostering and protecting democracy, we ask for your continued help in our shared struggle to strengthen media freedom and the freedom of expression in a country at war with itself.