Celebrating World Press Freedom Day

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made the keynote address at a ceremony organised by The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka in collaboration with the UNESCO to mark the World Press Freedom Day, held at the BMICH on Friday. Also in the picture are the President of the Guild, Siri Ranasinghe, Secretary of the Guild Upali Tennakoon and UNESCO representative in Sri Lanka Mahinda Abeywardena.
Pic by M.A.Pushpakumara

The awarding of the 2002 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to Zimbabwean journalist Geoffrey Nyarota at a special ceremony in Manila, Philippines this Friday was for a particular - and very special - reason. . Thus, "….the courage and persistence of Geoffrey Nyarota, who has not yielded to the enormous pressure on him in the last few years, is an example to all the world's journalists…." said UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, when announcing the award earlier this year. As editor-in-chief of Zimbabwe's only independent newspaper, The Daily News, Nyarota engaged in persistently courageous journalism in the course of which he was arrested and detained, repeatedly received death threats and has four libel suits pending against him.

The offices of his newspaper had also been bombed twice. He was commended specifically for his "tireless" efforts in denouncing corruption among senior government officials in Zimbabwe despite severe intimidation. The awarding of the prestigious prize (named after Colombian journalist Guillermo Cano who was murdered for criticising the activities of powerful drug barons in his country), to Nyarota was at the end of two days of UNESCO led deliberations on the effects of terrorism on the media and press freedom worldwide. He is also a winner of the World Association of Journalists' 2002 Golden Pen of Freedom Award and the Committee to Protect Journalists' 2001 Press Freedom Award.

The further strengthening of international media solidarity for Nyarota comes in the context of Zimbabwe earning for itself a reputation as one of the worst offenders of press freedoms this year. A sustained process of media intimidation and abuse in that country culminated in the January signing of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.

The Act which requires all journalists in Zimbabwe to be licenced by a new Media and Information Commission, has been severely criticized as "restrictive and undemocratic by free expression watchdogs including the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and the International Federation of Journalists. Several of its provisions are particularly obnoxious to free expression, including those provisions which enable journalists to be prosecuted for criticizing Mugabe and the government and makes it illegal for journalists to operate without accreditation.

It meanwhile confers unfettered power on the Minister of Information to determine the makeup of the Commission and grants equally unfettered powers of regulation and control of journalists to the Commission, including disciplinary powers to withdraw journalists' licences, confiscate equipment and jail journalists for up to two years. Heavy fines can be placed on journalists for publishing stories on "protected" information, or news likely to cause alarm and despondency, which could range from rumours, advice offered to Mugabe or minutes of cabinet meetings.

It also restricts visits by foreign journalists who must be cleared first by Zimbabwe's diplomatic offices in their home countries. The Act was one of the first laws passed by Mugabe since his highly controversial polls victory this year. Closer at home, World Press Freedom Day has been preceded by worrying developments with regard to press freedom in neighbouring countries.

Thus, an unprecedented joint session of the Indian Parliament recently passed the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) despite severe dissent by legislators, activists, academics and members of the public who pointed out that the law was extremely undemocratic and gave extensive powers of arrest and detention to the police.

Under the law, police officers are empowered to detain suspects for up to 90 days without trial (as opposed to ordinary legal provisions which allow for detention without trial only for a maximum of 24 hours) and wiretap telephone calls. A noted international human rights activist body, Human Rights Watch meanwhile expressed fears with regard to those provisions of the law which punish those who possess information the government considers "of material assistance in preventing a 'terrorist' act." Journalists who might possess such information and who refuse to hand it over to authorities could be jailed for up to three years.

Meanwhile, a bill introduced in Bangladesh's Parliament provides for jail sentences up to seven years for journalists who criticise government officials and judges. The proposed law classifies anyone other than members of parliament (MPs) and staff as "strangers" in the house and prohibits journalists from reporting on "sensitive" parliamentary topics. Those who cover parliamentary issues are liable to prosecution if they make what are perceived to be insults against MPs, the president or supreme court judges.

If convicted, fines and imprisonment could be imposed concurrently or alternately. The bill also gave MPs immunity from criminal charges and empowered the Parliament Speaker to either order arrests without a warrant or issue arrest warrants. Bangladesh's editors have condemned the bill, pointing out that "The law appears to be a tool to choke the freedom of the press, thereby denying the people's right to know." The months of February and March this year has been marked by the killing of a senior staff reporter and the intimidation of several other journalists in the country.

Similarly in Pakistan, the resignation of Shaheen Sehbai, senior editor at one of Pakistan's leading English-language newspapers ("The News") purportedly after political pressure was brought to bear on him and three other journalists, has evoked concern.

This has been amidst newspaper reports that the Musharraf government would ban, shut down and take legal action against newspapers printers and publishers that print "provocative and baseless news items against the president" under the terms of the 1962 Press and Publication Ordinance. Completing this dismal picture, the Nepalese press has also been pushed to the defensive by a new anti-terrorism law to be tabled in Nepal's parliament which imposes sanctions for "publication or distribution of information about any individual or group implicated in terrorist or subversive activities" and gives authorities greater powers to fight against "terrorists" and extend time limits on detention. It is expected that about thirty journalists and media workers presently detained in Nepali jails for suspected acts of terrorism would be charged under the law.

Sri Lanka, of course, at this present moment in time, provides a welcome exception to this litany of media woes in South Asia.

The ongoing moves towards abolition of the penal provisions relating to defamation and enacting a Freedom of Information Act are instead, positive moves to the contrary. While we are exceedingly glad that this is so, the trend towards restricting press freedoms in South Asia in the midst of crises which pose freedom of information as a threat to governments should not be allowed to pass unnoticed by journalists in this country. It is fitting that we take time to remind ourselves of the need for greater regional solidarity this week as courageous journalism round the world is remembered and feted.

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