By Patricia A. Butenis
The 20th century American politician Thomas “Tip” O’Neill once famously said that “all politics is local”. That was often true of the news in the last century as well. With the advent of so many technological changes, however, the truism for information in the 21st century has become “all news is international”.
Local stories quickly become international and the citizen’s right to be informed spans the globe, whether events are happening in the Americas, Africa, Europe, or Asia.
The United States values this freedom of the press as a key component of democratic governance. In the US and around the world, free media foster active debate, provide investigative reporting, and serve as a forum to express different points of view.
This year UNESCO is celebrating World Press Freedom Day with one of its themes: ‘Difficulty in the Access to Quality Information Undermines Media Freedom’. UNESCO notes that “the right to free speech and press freedom are deeply interconnected with the right to access information”.
In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) holds public officials accountable for their actions and encourages transparent government by allowing media the right to gather information and for the citizens to know what their government is doing.
Though it is not a perfect system, FOIA has done a great deal to ensure a more transparent government in the US.
The Sri Lankan Parliament took up this issue in the recent past. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission also recommended the passage of an access-to-information law, noting that “freedom of expression and right to information, which are universally regarded as basic human rights, play a pivotal role in any reconciliation process.”
Implementing the LLRC recommendations would also go a long way to answer questions about previous disappearances (including that of Prageeth Ekneligoda, among others) and set the stage for greater access to information for all Sri Lankan people.
President Obama has said: “No one should be silenced and everyone deserves to know the truth.” That holds for traditional journalists in print, television, and radio as much as it does for bloggers and online news outlets.
As a friend of the people and Government of Sri Lanka, we in the US Embassy offer our support to achieve freedom of the press in Sri Lanka and around the world.
The US commends journalists for the important role they play, and for their commitment to the free exchange of ideas. A free press enhances the public’s right to know by encouraging the free exchange of information.
Protecting it, however, requires a national commitment, by both government and the public alike, to make sure that right is defended for everyone.
(The writer is the US Ambassador in Sri Lanka.)