The International Federation of Journalists sent a team to Sri Lanka to assess the future of press freedom in that country following 25 years of civil war.
In June 2009, the [government] notified its intent to revive the 1973 Sri Lanka Press Council Act. A chairman of the revived council was appointed, as also a government nominee and two members representing the public. The move has been stalled because the media industry and journalists’ organisations have refused to name their nominees.
The media in Sri Lanka was never comfortable with the 1973 Act for reasons that are not hard to comprehend. It provides, for instance, for stringent action against journalists, including prosecution for contempt and imprisonment for extended periods. It contains fairly stringent provisions that enable the prohibition of certain kinds of media content, including the following.
Elections will be held next year and press freedom is becoming a part of the campaign. The IFJ recommended that the Sri Lanka press community unite to present a charter of demands to all sides involved in the upcoming elections in 2010. Such a charter should seek to secure the basic demands of the media and address the right of the public to full and fair information.
Such a charter should minimally address the following issues.
- The return to Sri Lanka of all journalists who have been forced into exile.
- A guarantee that all returning journalists will be assured of their security and physical well-being.
- An assurance from the President that state-owned media will be permitted to report freely and without bias on the election campaign.
- A review of the cases of journalists who have been imprisoned or convicted under “emergency regulations” and special security laws within a reasonable time frame.
- A favourable approach toward amnesty for these journalists in a spirit of truth and reconciliation.
- Accountability for all past abuses against media personnel, particularly murders and physical attacks, but also including verbal abuse, threats and intimidation, within a reasonable time frame.
- An assurance that once the elections are concluded, the urgent issue of transforming state-owned media into public service trusts will be actively addressed as a matter of urgent priority.
- An undertaking that right to information legislation will be enacted and implemented as a matter of urgent priority.
Stakeholders in the media should at the same time commit themselves to providing journalists, especially those in the provinces, with a fair deal. Collective agreements between managements and workers in all media organisations should be concluded to provide for stability and security in employment conditions. Structures of self-regulation and accountability toward the media audience should be strengthened. The media should aim to speak for all Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities, rather than cater to their narrow
constituencies of advertisers and readers.
One can only hope that the people of Sri Lanka will come to their senses and not only put in laws protecting press freedom but also the mechanism to protect that freedom.
Remember that this is the place that started the year with the daylight murder of Lasantha Wickramatunge, whose characteristic campaigning style made him one of the most widely recognised journalists in Sri Lanka. And this murder is still nowhere near being solved.
It is the place (under another government) that forced the family of Hong Kong buddy and fellow scribe Nury Vittachi into exile. (Nury’s father was a prominent editor. The family received a tip to leave. They did just ahead of security forces sent to arrest the father.)
It will be interesting to see how much coverage the elections get and how much attention is paid to the rebuilding efforts that need to take place in Sri Lanka as opposed to horse race election reporting.