Press Freedom Day
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.