“Media, Dialogue, and Mutual Understanding” – Sunday, 10.5.2009

Posted on 11 May 2009. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 611 |

The Mirror, Vol. 13, No. 611

The day of 3rd May was a special day, established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993. World Press Freedom Day was created as a result of a “Seminar on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press,” convened by UNESCO in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, reflecting the struggles and concerns of journalists, implementing their professional duties even against resistance, sometimes fatal resistance.

The establishment of World Press Freedom Day by the United Nations was a follow-up on the Windhoek Declarations on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media of 3 May 1991, from which some sections follow here:

1. Consistent with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.

2. By an independent press, we mean a press independent from governmental, political, or economic control, or from control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of newspapers, magazines and periodicals.

3. By a pluralistic press, we mean the end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community…

6.In Africa today, despite the positive developments in some countries, in many countries journalists, editors and publishers are victims of repression – they are murdered, arrested, detained and censored, and are restricted by economic and political pressures such as restrictions on newsprint, licensing systems which restrict the opportunity to publish, visa restrictions which prevent the free movement of journalists, restrictions on the exchange of news and information, and limitations on the circulation of newspapers within countries and across national borders.

For the 2009 commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, the UN suggested to set the focus on Media, Dialogue, and Mutual Understanding.

Every year, UNESCO awards a World Press Freedom Prize. This year’s price was awarded posthumously to Lasantha Wickrematunge, a lawyer and journalist from Sri Lanka, who was assassinated on 8 January 2009. Since 1994 he had campaigned against the war between the army of Sri Lanka and Tamil rebels. He became further highly respected among journalists in 2000, when he won a court victory against the government, which finally resulted in the abolition of a law that allowed the government of Sri Lanka to curtail the freedom of the media. When the office of the newspaper, the Sunday Leader, for which he was writing, was attacked and damaged in November 2007, he expected he might be assassinated in future, and he wrote an editorial for publication after his death, in case he would be killed. We reprint excerpts from this text:

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not…

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognize that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic…

Many people suspect that the Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not…

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the [insurgent Tamil] Tigers. The Tigers are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organizations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of [Hindu] Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the [Buddhist] Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended.

In the wake of my death I know you [addressing the President of Sri Lanka] will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too…

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemoller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemoller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niemoller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me.

And there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Sunday Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident, or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

In 2006, the UN Secretary General declared: “On World Press Freedom Day, let us recognize that national and global media not only report on change, but they are themselves agents of change.” The challenge to be agents of change continues. It is not a fixed status, it is a process to be acted out again and again.

This is the challenge of the 2009 Word Press Freedom theme:

Media, Dialogue, and Mutual Understanding

There is no simple method to tell the difference between fact and opinion, truth and propaganda, correct analysis and shrewd deception, when we live with the freedom of the press – “the freedom of expression, press, publication and assembly” as Article 41 of the Constitution guarantees.

The media – the printed press, radio and television, and the Internet – present information and opinion.

This material has to be taken up and used in dialogue – among persons holding similar, and among persons holding different and even opposing opinions – to be open, leading to mutual understanding – of course not always to mutual agreement.

That is why we need spokespersons in all major institutions, so that we can understand the implications of such facts like that financial assistance by Japan – originating from the Japanese people – covering the financial needs for the Cambodian side of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is declared to have come without being asked for and not necessarily welcome, welcome might also have been a financial collapse – and at the same time the Prime Minister ask for emergency assistance from Japan against the A/H1N1 virus. Or how the concerns for a solution of the tensions around the Preah Vihear temple need to accommodate many different aspects transparently. And that all sides on the way towards the commune elections have to carefully listen to real arguments and not only to opinions or even rumors or threats.

As Lasantha Wickrematunge wrote, expecting that he might face death for it: “But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre, and security. It is the call of conscience.”

Please recommend us also to your colleagues and friends.

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[…] These holidays without new publicatins may provide an opportiunity to re-read, or read for the first time, the editorial of last Sunday, 10.5.2009: “Media, Dialogue, and Mutual Understanding.” […]

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