By Jacqueline Park
Across the countries of South Asia, journalists and media workers continue to be imprisoned in one way or another.
In some cases, journalists are detained without charge, jailed on spurious allegations, or sentenced to extreme penalties for exercising the right to gather, analyse and share information of interest to the public at large.
In other cases, the shackles are evident where journalists and media institutions bow to the strictures of official censorship or seek pre-emptive security through self-censorship.
A disturbing trend is becoming apparent in some of the countries of South Asia, where data collected by local journalists’ organisations for the annual South Asia Press Freedom Report 2007-08 indicates that a high proportion of journalists and media personnel who are targeted for attack and intimidation are young people who are relatively new to the profession.
In Afghanistan, for example, a 23-year-old journalist and student, Syed Parvez Kambaksh, was sentenced to death on a charge of blasphemy after a closed-door hearing in January.
His crime? He is accused of downloading information from the internet about the rights of women under Islam and distributing it among a small number of students at Balkh University, Mazar-e-Sharif. He also happens to be the younger brother of a journalist who has incurred official displeasure by writing articles on security issues for an international news portal.
In Sri Lanka, Tamil journalist Munusamy Parameshwari is now 24. She fled her country recently and is in hiding after receiving death threats for several years. Her family was also threatened. From November 2006 to March 2007, Parameshwari was detained without charge under anti-terrorist laws. Shortly after her release she was abducted and assaulted by several men in uniform who warned her to discontinue her reporting.
Her crime? Parameshwari gathered information for articles that exposed government participation in abductions, as well as other human rights abuses. She is called a terrorist because she belongs to an ethnic group with which Sri Lanka’s Government is at war.
In seeking assistance to escape her tormentors, Parameshwari explains she needed to leave Sri Lanka in order “to live a fear-free life and regain my self esteem”. She adds: “The long period of detention and the constant harassment, coupled with the fear for my life, has had a serious impact on my psychological well-being and I am forced to seek counselling in order to function on a day-to-day basis.”
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Across South Asia and elsewhere in the world, young journalists bear the malicious brunt of forces opposed to press freedom and the right of all people to access information of importance to their everyday lives.
It is a deadly serious matter when journalists and media workers of any age and rank are censored, targeted for attack or imprisoned for the work they do to keep the public informed.
However, a further negative factor kicks in when extreme efforts to silence the voices and investigations of young and inquiring journalists like Kambaksh, Parameshwari and Akash dissuade aspiring journalists from entering the profession.
Young people may come to the conclusion that the risk of personal harm – to themselves and to their families – is too high a price to pay for seeking to report the truth.
Already, journalists and media workers in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are reportedly leaving the profession, concerned for their safety on the job, frustrated by censors, compromised by pressures to self-censor, and demoralised by poor working conditions and pay.
Where the incentive does exist for younger people to enter journalism, commercial pressures may compel them to turn their backs on the public service values of the profession. In countries with high-levels of economic inequality, media professionals are increasingly required to reflect exclusively the interests and aspirations of those of wealth and privilege.
Press freedom is about much more than the right of a journalist to conduct his or her work without restriction and without fear of debilitating repercussions.
It is about much more than media institutions being free to disseminate information to consumers in a competitive market.
Press freedom is an essential component of the processes and structures of a free, stable and secure society. It cannot be achieved in isolation. It requires the collaborative efforts not only of journalists and their organisations, but media owners, political power-holders, community leaders and ordinary people.
At the core of the defence and strengthening of press freedom for the betterment of society, however, is the continuing renewal of the profession of journalism through the induction of young journalists willing to stand up and speak truth to power.
As journalists’ organisations and press freedom advocates around the world prepare to mark World Press Freedom Day this Saturday (3 May 2008), we should all consider why press freedom is important in our society, and stand up to ensure that new generations of journalists need not fear or suffer imprisonment, literally or figuratively.
Jacqueline Park is the Director of IFJ Asia-Pacific. IFJ Asia-Pacific released this week its sixth annual South Asia Press Freedom Report 2007-08. The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries.