Media freedom is your freedom

This week, the main associations representing the publishers, editors, working journalists and media activists came together to mark the 10th anniversary of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility. It was a dedication to the 1998 occasion when these same groups moved to resist the tyranny unleashed against editors and publishers via the archaic but lethal criminal defamation laws of the time.

This week's event was held under the umbrella of the Sri Lanka Press Institute, a direct outcome of that 1998 Colombo Declaration, now mandated by these four organisations to protect media freedom in this country, and ensure that that freedom is accompanied by social responsibility.

Among the issues discussed (please see page 6 for a comprehensive report) were reporting the on-going separatist insurgency and the impact of Emergency Regulations on its coverage, proposed new laws on Contempt of Court and Freedom of Information and the use and censorship of the Internet and other areas of communications like the hi-tech mobile phones that were not available in Sri Lanka just ten years ago.

Today, media freedom is more or less the right of self-defence, literally. It was in May and June this year that assaults on journalists reached their nadir. The cries of the long-suffering journalists in the North and East have been going unheard in the corridors of power in Colombo.

Topics like Emergency Regulations came under scrutiny, and one heard from the former Attorney General who referred to the country being "plagued" by emergency rule for so long due to violent insurgencies and armed rebellions. But, he said, there were Constitutional safeguards to check the Executive (the government) abusing these regulations.

Like in the case of Emergency Regulations, journalists can also be prone to the vagaries of Contempt of Court, from judges who can use those powers at their whim and fancy. We had reassurance from a sitting Supreme Court judge that no Court in Sri Lanka has sent a journalist to jail for contempt, and how the law was being used against errant politicians and government officials more than anyone else.

There were examples from India, where a Right to Information Law provided ordinary citizens the 'right' to ask a government contractor or official how much was being spent on a bridge or road or community centre, and hold the government accountable.

Why cannot such a law be introduced in Sri Lanka? What has the war effort got to do with it? Why would any government want to hide how it spends the people's money? Is it beyond this government and parliament to bring it in now?

The issue of press freedom embraces wider aspects of good governance, and the rights of individuals in democracies.
The Colombo Declaration has two aspects to its name: synonymous with its battles for media freedom, is the media's own social responsibilities.

Towards this goal, the Sri Lanka Press Institute has launched a self-regulatory Complaints Commission that enforces an Editors' Code and entertains reader complaints, as well as a school for journalism training.

On the other hand, accusations of lethargy, disunity and back-stabbing, found in all professions exist. Some journalists - and indeed editors and publishers -- are accused of collaborating with the government, or the opposition.

There is a need then for the media, to gain traction with the public at large; and make them realise that these freedoms are for their own benefit. Media Freedom is not limited to journalists. Media Freedom is the People's Freedom.

Let us hope the revised 1998 Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility will provide some momentum towards this objective.

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