‘Gains in standards could be undermined by a culture of self-censorship’

An English newspaper here on Saturday tried to hold a mirror to the state of press freedom in the country by printing a mirror image of its front page contents.

Readers were in for a surprise on World Press Freedom Day.  The printing of indecipherable words by Daily Mirror, an English newspaper here, seemed to be aimed at sparking questions about the state of media freedom in the country, and what it spawns — self-censorship.Freedom of pressThe sole legible sentence on the front page read: “Only true freedom of the press can turn things the right way around. Celebrating World Press Freedom Day 2014!”  

The message rang a bell as Sri Lanka, for long, has been grappling with the issue of media freedom. There have been many instances of media persons being attacked, and even murdered.

The country has lost some of its senior journalists, including Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader.  

“The fact that none of the perpetrators has been brought to justice is rather worrying,” V. Thanapalabalasingham, Editor of Thinakural, a Tamil daily. Such a situation only breeds more fear and consequently, self-censorship, said media professionals. The culture of self-censorship, in turn, negatively impacted the quality of journalism, they observed.

“Gains in professional standards could be undermined by a culture of self-censorship which could be due to a multitude of reasons, ” said Amal Jayasinghe, bureau chief of Agence France-Presse (AFP), adding that risk aversion and a lack of resources threatened to bring down the credibility of Sri Lanka’s press.

Observing that there was a threat to the freedom of expression, Saman Wagaarachchi, editor of Sinhala paper Lakbima said: “Today, most media organisations are wary of being critical of the government and therefore, self-censorship is a major issue.”

Over the last few years, media freedom in Sri Lanka has drawn increased international attention. The U.S.-backed resolution, adopted by the Human Rights Council (HRC) in March this year, has urged the Government of Sri Lanka to investigate all alleged attacks by individuals and groups on various sections, including journalists.

While mainstream media was faced with challenges, Mr. Jayasinghe observed that it was heartening to see social media take on issues which may be taboo or too sensitive for the established news outlets.