By Udara Soysa

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Leader, Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia Desk in Paris of Reporters Without Borders said that Sri Lanka must immediately combat impunity related to violations of free speech.  In an interview covering a wide variety of topics related to press freedom, he stressed that Sri Lanka must “Introduce structural legal reforms to create an enabling environment for a free and independent media including by transforming existing state media into independent public service media, with guaranteed editorial independence, by adopting a strong right to information law and by overhauling broadcast regulation to put it in the hands of an independent regulator with a mandate to regulate in the public interest.”
He also criticized the moves taken to block anti-government websites in Sri Lanka. “When the pro government and defence web sites are allowed and even sponsored to attack the opposition and independent journalists, why the government is not giving a chance to the other side to expose its views?” He questioned.
“It’s a paradox that we can explain by the existence for decades of independent media like The Sunday Leader or Sunday Mirror where journalists have been practising investigation and critics. Sri Lanka was in fact a leading country in terms of press freedom and media quality in South Asia. But violence and intolerance have destroyed some of the basis of this important legacy. In fact, around the world, where you find good journalists and bold media, you will also find attacks on them, because they expose the government and the corruption.”

The full text of the interview;

Q: How do you see the media freedom issue in Sri Lanka?

A: With a lot of concern. Of course, since the end of the war, we found some improvements but we still collect many evidences of harassment and intimidation against media, so we can’t say that we came back to a normal situation. The war is over but the hostility against independent voices, including journalists, is still going on.

Q: What is the basis of your claims on Sri Lanka?

A: Our job is to monitor on daily basis the press freedom violations. We monitor the positive things (release of Tissa, BBC restarting broadcasting) and the negative things (threats, impunity, trials) that take place in Sri Lanka like in every countries, being from Europe or Asia.
In 2009, on the basis of such investigations, Sri Lanka was ranked the worst democracy in our world press freedom ranking, because the tensions were so high during the war (censorship, killing of Lasantha, etc.). We hope that the government will take action so the ranking of the country will improve. Our approach is not biased or ideological. For example, some developing countries from Africa or Asia have a very good ranking.

Q: What are some suggestions and recommendations of RSF to improve the situation?

A: We fully understand that the task faced by the government is enormous, but we strongly believe that the duty of the president and ministers is to restore democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression.
With the international mission on press freedom we made such recommendations :

1.     Combat impunity through the creation of a Special Prosecutor’s Office for the investigation of crimes against the media with full autonomy to investigate attacks on and assassinations of journalists and to bring those responsible to justice. Several journalists have been killed since 2007, and yet none of these murders have yet been solved.

2.     In accordance with international standards on media freedom and freedom of expression, put in place effective measures to ensure that all journalists can work safely, in particular in areas of the North and East.

3.     Withdraw all unjustified complaints and lawsuits brought by the police and government against journalists and freedom of expression activists and repeal legal provisions which may be used to punish journalists for engaging in legitimate media work, including those found in anti-terrorism legislation.

4.     Release the first results of the investigation into the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge.

5.     Provide full and unconditional access to the IDP camps for all media in order to report freely and fairly on the reconstruction process since the end of the war. The media can play a vital role in making sure that the reconstruction and reconciliation efforts are genuine and have real impact to bringing lasting peace.

6.     Repeal the Press Council Act No. 5 of 1973, which includes powers to fine and/or impose criminal measures, including sentencing journalists, editors and publishers to lengthy prison terms. Instead, allow the media to strengthen the existing self-regulatory mechanism, in accordance with democratic practices.

7.     Introduce training for the police, army and the intelligence agencies on freedom of expression and the important role of the media in a democratic society. Since 2007, security forces have been allegedly responsible for kidnapping, beating and threatening at least 30 journalists and media workers.

8.     Award financial compensation to journalists who have been arbitrarily detained, beaten or otherwise harassed by security forces.

9. Invite the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom and Expression to visit Sri Lanka, in line with your government’s commitments to the Human Rights Council in 2006.
10. Work with the state-owned media to ensure the immediate end to direct verbal attacks and threats against independent journalists and press freedom activists, which has in particular promoted the unethical spread of accusations portraying the media as LTTE-supporters in a concerted hate campaign that has put several journalists lives in unnecessary danger.

11. Introduce structural legal reforms to create an enabling environment for a free and independent media including by transforming existing state media into independent public service media, with guaranteed editorial independence, by adopting a strong right to information law and by overhauling broadcast regulation to put it in the hands of an independent regulator with a mandate to regulate in the public interest.

Q: Despite the alleged oppression, media has many critics of the government actively writing against the government. How do you see this phenomenon?

A: Its a paradox that we can explain by the existence for decades of independent media like The Sunday Leader or Sunday Mirror where journalists have been practising investigation and critics. Sri Lanka was in fact a leading country in terms of press freedom and media quality in South Asia. But violence and intolerance have destroyed some of the basis of this important legacy.

In fact, around the world, where you find good journalists and bold media, you will also find attacks on them, because they expose the government and the corruption.

Q: How do you see the future of media freedom in Sri Lanka?

A: Everything depends of the government will and the intention of the President (and his brothers) to give a democratic legacy in accepting the critics. We really hope that the country will finally enter in a post conflict period and for example leave all the exiled journalists/human rights activists to come back safely.

Q:  How do you see the alleged cyber censoring issue in Sri Lanka as the government had allegedly blocked several political websites in Sri Lanka?

A: It’s a new trend but very worrying because journalists and civil society go on the internet when they can’t find a space to express in the traditional media. Such blocking of Tamil web sites create the feeling that Tamils are always victims. And in the case of the English / Sinhalese web sites, it only show that the government is intolerant to the critic. When the pro government and defence web sites are allowed and even sponsored to attack the opposition and independent journalists, why the government is not giving a chance to the other side to expose its views?
That’s why RSF put Sri Lanka in its list of countries under surveillance because of internet censorship.

Source: The Sunday Leader – 30.05.2010

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