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Countries around the world observed May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. World Press Freedom Day exists to recognise the sacrifices made in the struggle for freedom of the press and to put pressure on Governments that continue to deny their citizens this basic human right. The May 3 message is that journalists everywhere must be granted the right to report freely and without fear. The date marks the anniversary of the Declaration of the Windhoek, a statement of principles drawn up by African journalists in 1991 calling for a free, independent and pluralistic media on that continent and throughout the world. The declaration affirms that a free press is essential to the existence of democracy and a fundamental human goal. The declaration is a milestone in the struggle for a free press in all regions of the world.
A senior journalist coming into the Su preme Court last week to observe the hearing of the Broadcasting Authority Bill commented wryly on his sense of "deja vu".
"One can almost think oneself back in the past. In fact, one wishes that one was in fact back in the past. Perhaps then, one would not feel this crushing sense of disappointment," he said.
Back in 1994, where the media went wrong was perhaps in believing that the new government coming into power on a wave of good will would somehow be different, would not tread the same sorry path that all governments had travelled on before. This naivete did not of course take long to subside. And the question becomes "What now? Where does one go from here?"
The issue involves more fundamental questions than the betrayal of promises by governments in power. (See box story) The latter is not peculiar to Sri Lanka, neither can we boast that governments here have been more authoritarian than others in the subcontinent. Governments in power are the same everywhere, the right to know and to inform exists only so long as their own power is not imperiled. In India journalists underwent far greater constraints than here. During the emergency of Ms. Gandhi she sought to create a climate where no dissent would be tolerated at all. Her government suspended enforcement of fundamental rights, demanded personal loyalty to herself, her family and friends and imposed a draconian press censorship. This had its inevitable effect on the Indian press. As Cushrow Irani, editor of the Statesman remarked
"Of the major newspapers, only a few fought back; the rest when asked to bend, chose to crawl". But the Indian press came out fighting from the 70s and have now established enviable traditions of independent journalism that plays a crucial role in the manner in which that sprawling country deals with its present problems so why is it that in comparison, we lag behind?
In India, the reason why the press was able to survive the terrors of the 70s was in the main because the newspapers were activist. They had the people and the judiciary behind them, as they fought for their survival. Irani is fond of relating the story where when his paper was beleaguered by the government, a porter at Delhi airport knew, despite censorship that they were with their backs to the wall, and refused payment for carrying his bags, adding that they were praying for the Statesman. When the Censor insisted on seeing page proofs and delayed them so that the morning edition could be printed only at lunch time, a serpentine queue formed right round the block wanting to buy the paper, and the circulation went up six times.
And the Indian judiciary upheld their battle for freedom. In Sri Lanka, the press has for long been on the defensive. Conditioned by a steady process of governmental manipulation, the media reacts to issues and does not or only rarely provoke issues. When it does so provoke, it is done with a subtle or not so subtle political motive. Thus it is that a particular investigation is carried through with a particular political end in mind. And in the process, the media becomes but a reflection of the aims and ambitions of particular politicians, be they government or opposition. Media provocation in the sense of true and independent journalism becomes a rarity.
In the process, much more is lost than a bartering of our souls to the devil. A sense of cynicism develops... and people just stop being bothered anymore. There in lies the real danger, this sapping of loyalty, the feeling of concern that for example an obscure Indian porter could feel and express towards what he identified as being "his paper".
Correspondingly, the Sri Lankan judiciary has not shown much fervour in acting as a guardian of the free press. The Supreme Court has stated contrary to modern law, that the press industry being a corporate body does not enjoy freedom of speech. Only individuals can enjoy this right. In two isolated examples however, the Supreme Court upheld the importance of free speech. The Jana Ghosha case protested the right of opposition members to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government by making a loud noise at a specified hour of the day while in Joseph Perera, an emergency regulation was thrown aside on the basis that it unconstitutionally vested police officers with an overly broad discretion to censor without proper guidelines.
Closer in time, the SLBC was rapped over its knuckles when it was judicially held that the stoppage of its controversial non formal educational programme was arbitrary and clearly wrong. In a bold judgement delivered last January, the Supreme Court gave a clear warning to the powers that be that rule state media, not to be too confident about their powers.
While the judiciary has undoubtedly an important part to play in protecting press freedom, the main brunt of the responsibility lies with the press themselves. Whether the press in Sri Lanka have effectively shouldered their responsibility remains questionable. Two instances in the recent past where the media could have unitedly presented an aggressive front should suffice. The first concerns the sweeping under the carpet of the government commissioned reports on Media Reform Laws and Broadcasting Lake House.
It was all too easy for the government to rest easy on their assurances that "something would be done" in the face of precious little agitation by the media regarding the fate of the reports anyway. If on the contrary when the report on the media laws was released last May, the media had agitated more effectively for its implementation, the present furore over the Broadcasting Authority Bill and this frantic scurrying to court would have been quite unnecessary. This is so because the report specifies very clearly that an independent authority should be set up for the regulation of licences to radio and television. At the very least the Media Minister and his government would have been more careful before media legislation is presented to Parliament. This comment is necessary in view of the media ministers defence that he had not read the Bill, and was therefore unaware of its provisions.
The second instance concerns the only time up to date, that press censorship as regards reportage of news from the north was challenged by a fundamental rights petition, some time back. The Supreme Court refused leave to appeal and the case collapsed by the wayside.
While this was not so surprising considering the innate conservatism of the court and its reluctance to become involved in hotly controversial issues what was shocking was the scant attention the matter received in the media, even though it concerned an issue vitally important to the press.
The present tug of war over the Broadcasting Authority Bill marks a new phase in media relations in Sri Lanka. It signifies a final dying of innocence. It should also signify a more intense inward looking, a consciousness that something must be done to restore the vibrancy of journalism by media persons themselves.
This astonishment over what governments do has gone on long enough. Just as much as the people get the government they deserve, so does the press get the government it deserves. And like other sectors of civil society, the media too has to accept its share of the blame for the confusion prevalent in society today.
Once this is acknowledged in a spirit of true humility, perhaps we can go on to better things. And press freedom will be a shared responsibility, not a pointing of a finger at the politicians and crying "You did not give this to us".
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