For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
With Sri Lanka dropping five places in the World Press Freedom Index from 158 in 2010 to 163 in 2011, the country’s press freedom today lies suppressed with the parliament not passing legislation for a Right to Information Act, not granting justice for the disappearances, assault and murders of journalists as well as economic pressures.
Celebrating World Press Freedom Day, senior journalists, heads of newspaper organisations and related originations yesterday voiced that the country does not exercise ‘free media’ along with the rest of the world.
Sri Lanka Press Institute CEO Imran Furkhan speaking at a World Press Freedom Day panel discussion on ‘new voices: media freedom helping to transform societies’ stated that a number of reasons work against supporting free media in the country. “Foremost is the legislative process. We have drafted along with the Legal Drafts Department a Right to Information Act which we hope would be passed in Parliament. This was almost passed in April 2010 but however did not happen. This is I believe the first step to freedom of expression.”
He also noted that justice should be delivered to all cases of journalists’ arrests, assaults, kidnapping and murders that has been ignored for decades. Old case files dismissed should be opened up and justice should be served to all, he said. “We also need to work on professionalism. The Journalism School was set up with the hope of promoting this among the future generation.”
Furkhan stated that the role of commercial sector plays a heavy role in suppressing the media freedom. “When those who threaten democracy realise that overt threats are failing they resort to more subtle threats. These could include withholding advertising revenue from entities not toeing the preferred line of reporting, influencing financial institutions to withhold or recall loans and other financial lines of credit, imposing high taxes and duties on imports of content and consumerables as well as equipments.”
At the discussion The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka representative Rajpal Abeynayake noted that for press freedom to exist the media must look inwards.
He said, “Institutions are broken down not just in the media, civic institutions as well. There is no civic accountability and without a vibrant free press we cannot do it and bring it to account. The only way to have a credible free press is that we look inwards first. We are not going to have a media that is going to lie and it means that we want Tunisia, Yeman change because it has been ‘sexed up’. We don’t want it because it is the ‘in thing.”
Meanwhile Sri Lanka Rupavahani Corporation Chairman Mohan Samaranayake speaking of subjective reporting added that as long as media remains a profit making institute/enterprise there will be no freedom. “But we cannot change the social system and the hierarchical structure,” he said, “What we need is to have a more civil criticism among ourselves.” Samaranayake stated that none of the current media houses either here or abroad adheres to the eight functions of media as listed in ‘One World, Many Voices.’ He stated that globally, the international media is dominated by seven institutes which includes BBC, AP, AFP and Reuters. “75% of the world media is dominated by these bodies.”
South Asia Free Media Association -Sri Lanka Chapter representative Lakshman Gunasekera also noted that media is now very much an “industry” which is changing drastically with social media coming in to play. “How can media be accountable?” he questioned, “this is the biggest challenge.” No longer can the media claim objectivity, Gunasekera said. The basic standards are not observed in the field and n longer can the public rely on media to provide ‘the facts.’
Free Media Movement representative Dileesha Abeysundera also posed the question of whether journalists deliver on their responsibilities.
“During the war information was limited, freedom was limited. Democracy was suppressed which led to media suppression and vice versa. After war too nothing much has changed.”
Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association representative Ranga Jayasuriya reminded that fellow journalist Pradeep Ekneligoda is still missing after two years. Reflecting on colleagues who have died, have been assaulted, abducted for several decades he noted that the country still has inequality reining. “If this is the case for us, imagine what our colleagues in Jaffna must be going through.”
Moderating the event was Daily Mirror Editor Champika Liyanaarachchi. She noted that a new media scene has evolved where everyone has become a journalist. “Everyone is a journalist. Everything boils down to the concept that, in today’s world role of media has evolved in such a way that it is hard to differentiate between public using social media and a journalist,” she said, “We have to correct our vices and prejudices. Media freedom does not mean that the media should always get together and rally around support the masses and go on toppling regimes.”
By Cheranka Mendis