The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) today released the report of a press freedom mission to Sri Lanka, identifying key challenges for the country's journalists and media at the end of 25 years of internal conflict and the inauguration of a new phase of political contests.
Media stakeholders who met with the mission during its visit to Sri Lanka in November identified the current political circumstances as embodying numerous threats and opportunities.
The entry of a former army commander into the race for the Presidency next year has thrown the contest open and provided an opportunity for local media to create more space for itself. At the same time, the heightened intensity of the political contest may also engender threats.
Certain new flashpoints have emerged in the always fraught relationship between the media and political power-holders. Any form of reckoning with the tactical decisions made during the final stages of the war earlier this year and the humanitarian consequences is actively discouraged. Despite this element of coercion on the media, this issue has been coming up in the campaign debates between rival candidates for the presidency.
The opposition's common candidate for the presidency, General Sarath Fonseka, has made special mention about the abuses suffered by the media during the years of war, especially in its final stages. If elected, he has committed himself to addressing these abuses in a spirit of candour and reconciliation. The media community is encouraged by these commitments, though certain among them recall his own far from spotless record, especially when it involved media criticism of his war-time role as Sri Lanka's army commander.
The actual record of addressing past abuses has been dismal, with little progress recorded in the investigation of the most conspicuous cases, including the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunge in January 2009.
The report documents the current stage of the investigations into this and other cases. It inquires into the conviction of J.S. Tissainayagam on terrorism charges and examines the credibility of the prosecution case, especially in view of the unconditional discharge of two of his co-accused.
In a climate of intolerance, several journalists are being induced to give up efforts to obtain redress for violations of their rights. The mission observed that journalists are being required to withdraw applications under the fundamental rights provisions of the Constitution merely to be set at liberty after prolonged periods in wrongful detention. In the judgment of the mission, this is a grossly unequal exchange.
Recent moves by the Government to revive a coercive form of media regulation, embodied in a 1973 legislation, have been opposed by journalists and publishers, who have renewed their commitment to a code of self-regulation.
The mission report concludes with recommendations that would set the relationship between the media and the Sri Lankan state on a different course. These include the return of all exiled Sri Lankan journalists, the unfettering of state media institutions so that they are able freely and fairly to report on the ongoing election campaign, the conversion of these institutions into a public service trust, the enactment of right to information legislation, and the addressing of all past abuses in a spirit of truth and reconciliation.
The mission report will soon be released in Sinhala and Tamil.
Apart from the IFJ, the mission team included representatives of the International Press Institute, Vienna (IPI) and International Media Support, Copenhagen (IMS). The financial support of the European Commission and the IMS is acknowledged.
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