2008: Celebrating the growth of media freedom and the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka

NOT.

Media freedom and the freedom of expression took a nose dive in 2008, following trends from the year before. Print, electronic and web media were severely undermined by government and LTTE supported violence – both physical and verbal – against dissent, independent opinion and investigative journalism. Framed by escalation of hostilities in the North and East and the demise of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), journalists and media personnel were killed, received death threats, were abducted, stabbed, beaten, grievously hurt, abused, their families attacked, houses ransacked and forced to go into hiding or flee the country. Based on spurious logic and evidence, many independent journalists as well as media establishments were branded traitors and pro-LTTE.

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Shooting in public – Citizen journalism under threat in Sri Lanka

In recent months, pedestrians who filmed public bomb attacks on their mobile phones have been confronted by the police. One citizen who passed on such footage to an independent TV channel was later vilified as a ‘traitor’. Overly suspicious (or jealous?) neighbours called the police about a friend who was running his video editing business from home in suburban Colombo.None of these individuals had broken any known law. Yet each one had to protest their innocence.

It may not be illegal, but it sure has become difficult and hazardous to use a camera in public in Sri Lanka today. Forget political demonstrations or bomb attacks that attract media attention. Covering even the most innocuous, mundane aspects of daily life can be misconstrued as a ’security threat’.

Nalaka Gunawardene writes to Groundviews on the emerging threats facing citizen journalists in Sri Lanka in an article titled Endangered: Our right to ’shoot’ in public

As Nalaka points out in his article, even liberal democracies such as the US have also tried to clamp down on User Generated Content (USG). As I’ve noted on this blog, while France24’s citizen journalism initiatives are commendable, they largely ignore the fact that France has clamped down on citizen journalism as well.

The problem facing citizen journalists in Sri Lanka is the vigilante justice in the form of Civil Defence Committees that have sprung up all over the country. As the Free Media Movement (FMM) in an open letter to the Inspector General of Police notes in relation to two recent cases involved accredited journalists:

We firmly assert that journalists and media workers have a right to gather and disseminate information in the public interest. Any means that directly or inadvertently curtails the rights journalists is tantamount to censorship. We believe the duty of the Police is to protect these rights that are the foundation of democracy. Sadly, in the both cases noted above, the actions of the Police were inimical to their role as defenders of rule of law, giving in as they did to the arbitrary actions of essentially over enthusiastic vigilantes.

If the situation is incredibly bad (and deteriorating further to boot) for journalists today, Nalaka’s understates the challenges facing citizen journalists in Sri Lanka today when he avers that:

It may not be illegal, but it sure has become difficult and hazardous to use a camera in public in Sri Lanka today. Forget political demonstrations or bomb attacks that attract media attention. Covering even the most innocuous, mundane aspects of daily life can be misconstrued as a ’security threat’.

Read his article in full here. The chapter on Citizen Journalism I wrote for Communicating Disasters, that Nalaka quotes from in his article, can be read in full here.

Key media organisations and trade unions in Sri Lanka recognise bloggers as journalists

A statement by the five leading media organisations and journalist trade unions in Sri Lanka carried in the Daily Mirror today is the first expression in the history of journalism in Sri Lanka that bloggers are defined as being inextricably part of the media community.

In reply to the Media Minister’s statement five media organisations comprising the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, the Federation of Media Employees’ Trade Unions, the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Federation, the Sri Lanka Tamil Journalists’ Association and the Free Media Movement said: “According to the views of a democratic society all those in print and electronic media as well as those who are professionally engaged in collecting information and distributing it to the public are considered journalists. Even those who maintain political and social blogs are considered journalists.”

The statement was issued in response to the Sri Lankan Media Minister’s denial of the contents of a report by the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) that ranked Sri Lanka as the third most dangerous place in the world for journalists.

A related article by Free Media Movement (FMM) spokesperson Sunanda Deshapriya (in Sinhala) explores this issue further, where he notes that:

“ïn saying that the only journalists the Minister recognises are those with ID cards issued by the Media Ministry, the Government of Sri Lanka conveniently ignores the vital social and political critques of bloggers in Sri Lanka. From Myanmar to China to Iraq, the world today gets news and information through bloggers.”

But it is not just the Government in Sri Lanka that does not understand the emergent power of bloggers. The behaviour of some traditional media in Sri Lanka towards bloggers earlier this year, and one Editor’s incredible response to this author’s efforts to point out the traditional media’s responsibility to treat bloggers in the same manner as other media sources, demonstrate that blogs clearly pose an irksome challenge to old school journalists as much as repressive governments.