Yet another World Press Freedom Day came and went yesterday, and nearly eight years after the end of the war, whether or not the Sri Lankan media enjoys total freedom remains a matter of debate. There is no denying that journalists aren’t dropping like flies anymore the way they used to until just a few years ago, and the press is arguably free to criticise the Government in the harshest of terms, as evidenced by the many scathing editorials, op-eds and news features that paint the ruling coalition in an increasingly unflattering light.
However, questions remain on whether independent journalists are free to objectively report facts without being influenced or manipulated by employers and/or their political acquaintances. It goes without saying that the concept of press freedom shouldn’t be limited to journalists being persecuted for writing the truth but also include the freedom to report according to their conscience without being pressured to meet an agenda.
Journalistic freedom is also stifled when society at large doesn’t know or fail to show an appreciation for the work journalists do and the value of having a free media as a voice for the populace. Too often, public and private sector individuals who journalists often come into contact in their line of work fail to do their part by refusing to cooperate. Speak to any reporter from a daily and they will regale you with stories of how they have been snubbed by many a would-be source for various reasons, chief of which is the all too understandable fear of repercussion.
World Press Freedom Day occurs on the anniversary of the first freedom of information law which applied to Sweden and Finland. Since then progressive movements around the world have rallied for similar legislature and it is good to see that, after years of silent agitation, Sri Lankan media is putting the recently-passed Right to Information (RTI) Act to good use.
To be informed is to be empowered; therefore when the media is disempowered, society as a whole suffers. While RTI is great, it is disheartening when journalists are denied the information they need in order to keep the public up to date. It bears repeating that too many institutes are not forthcoming with the media, often refusing to cooperate and share information that is vital for the public good and for enhancing democracy and debate. While the media is flawed to be sure and deserves a degree of criticism, it must be understood that obtaining and publishing data is often a laborious and time-consuming process leading to inaccuracies and counter allegations because officials are not willing to give information to journalists.
For media freedom to increase, the right to information is an important issue that needs to be addressed. Assisting journalists to do their job and respecting their rights is an essential facet of establishing a strong fourth estate. Media freedom is essential to develop good governance, freedom of expression and democracy; thus it is in the best interests of everyone to support a responsible and professional media with the right to access information for the public good.