By Malinda Seneviratne –
Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day. It is a time for reflection about the status of these freedoms or their absence in Sri Lanka.
In this Age of Information, Sri Lankan journalists do not have the privilege of Freedom of Information legislation that would give access to information on important issues and mega projects. The manifest reluctance to open the doors to scrutiny implies that there are things to hide. There are other more tangible obstacles. There is threat and its execution. There’s gagging, direct and subtle. There is self-censorship wrought by these things.
Journalists themselves don’t make things easy when they lie and mislead, when media freedom advocates violate principles of transparency and accountability. Journalists have suffered rather than benefited from outfits such as the Free Media Movement for these very reasons. Just the other day, for example, an NGO called ‘Freedom House’ ranked Sri Lanka 167th out of 198 countries with respect to ‘freedom of the press’. An outfit called ‘Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice’ claims that 34 Sri Lankan journalists were killed. The former makes calculations based on organizations like the latter. Now if we don’t factor in the credentials of the relevant information providers then we have reliability compromised.
If someone wears the journalist hat now and terrorist cap later and happens to be killed in counter-terrorist operations, we can choose to call the victim ‘journalist’ or ‘terrorist’. Our choice is framed by ideological and outcome preferences. If in description and naming the necessary qualifiers are kept hidden we don’t do justice to our vocation. And when the unjust champion the just cause of press freedom, it only shows how poor we are. If, moreover, the unjust also happen to be embezzlers who don’t give a hoot to the transparency and accountability they demand from governments, it makes matters still worse.
Regardless of the antics of self-appointed advocates of press freedom, regardless of the fact that some of them are rogues, they cry they raise remains valid.
We want things changed. We want protective and enabling legislation. We demand these things because no oppressor ever voluntarily concedes anything to the oppressed. That’s what Martin Luther King (jr) said. True. And demands have a better chance of yielding something tangible if the oppressed stand together. Those numbers count. A single individual, after all, is not a front.
And yet Rosa Parks, on December 1, 1955 decided to object to segregation laws in Montgomery. She was an individual. She continued to sit in a bus when ordered to stand and make way for a white passenger. She sat down for freedom and thereafter others African Americans stood up for freedom all over the United States of America. There was advocacy in her act of defiance. There was also ‘doing’; there was ‘walking the talk’. Even as she sat. There’s a lesson there for all of us.
Journalists do not have to wait on the largesse of, the powerful. Even as they agitate for freedoms, it is incumbent upon them to rehearse that freedom and desist from that which could compromise their cause. There are contractual boundaries. Journalists must play at the margins and strive to push them out. Those who say ‘impossible’ probably don’t try hard enough. There is nothing airtight in this world. If anyone entertained illusions that defense systems are perfect, 9/11 would have been sobering enough to abandon the notion. It is the same principle that allows for an obviously non-destructive equivalence in the media world. Sure, there are dangers. Journalists have got killed. No one said it was going to be delivered on a platter with thank-you note either.
This is why some feel that there’s safety in numbers. And yet numbers is just element. Organizations and organizing are useful but not always necessary when it comes to saying what needs to be said. If what needs to be said is to be said, one must have courage and skill. One must be intelligent and creative. There should be humility and patience. Above all there has to be professional honesty. Take any one of these out, and no amount of friendly legislation will get us very far. Freedom is not given, it is got. It is obtained less by agitation than by practicing vocation. With honor and dignity.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com