Last week on May 3, there were meetings, conferences, seminars, symposiums and demonstrations across the world to mark the World Press Freedom day. I was invited by UNESCO for a conference on “Rural Voices: Upholding Freedom of Expression through Mainstream and Alternative Media,” where the Press Freedom Report for South Asia for 2012-13 was released. The common thread that connected multiple events of May 3 — the proceedings of the UNESCO conference in New Delhi, Prof. C.P. Chandrasekhar’s Larry Pinkham Memorial lecture in Chennai, the deliberations of various other conferences from Washington to Sydney — was the recognition of media as Public Good, and from that premise, the larger mediascape was critically scrutinised.
Imprisoned Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu was awarded the 2013 UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. The prize recognises her “exceptional courage, resistance and commitment” to freedom of expression. She was charged with “terrorism offences” on June 2012, under the vaguely worded and broad-reaching Anti-Terrorism law, passed by the regime in 2009. But, a closer reading clearly reveals that she was jailed for her exceptional journalism.
Alemu’s case is not an isolated one. The agency of journalists to push the envelope and the wider public’s demand for credible, trustworthy news sources are the positive development. On the flip side, there is a real fear of casting away the hard-won freedoms, and, as its extension, a vibrant, common forum for dialogue and debate is under severe strain. The challenges come from multiple sources.
The most disheartening development is that promises are broken with impunity and there is no real corrective mechanism. According to Annie Game, Executive Director, IFEX, “The bad news is that in much of the world, a free press remains a dream. That’s not new, but it bears repeating, even in established democracies where press freedom is often taken for granted. Issues of media ownership and political interference are always factors to consider. In some cases, media abuses by a few have led to proposed limitations on press freedom more generally. In yet others, powerful crime syndicates are making a mockery of the laws that purportedly protect media. And in several of the newest democracies, after the excitement of governments and tyrants overthrown, after constitutions drafted in the noblest of language, after the international press has moved on to other stories, and those fledgling democracies are put to the test — we are seeing press freedom among the first casualties.”
In South Asia
Closer home, the truth hurts more. The situation in South Asia is really grim. This newspaper has documented many of the acts of violation of freedom of expression in innumerable articles and reports. The UNESCO-IFJ’s 2012-13 report gives us no comfort.
It says: “Physical safety has again been justifiably recognised as a requirement for press freedom and a priority in a region which remains one of the most dangerous for journalists to operate in. In Nepal and Sri Lanka, violence against journalists and the media has been a disturbingly recurrent phenomenon over the past twelve months. Prolonged internal warfare, now formally declared over in both countries, presented serious challenges for independent journalism while a blanket of impunity for violent acts committed during the war continues and political settlement remains elusive.”
The report documents a key media commentator’s observation that “in Sri Lanka ‘standards’ applicable in the past deteriorating to the extent that journalists are being looked at more with ridicule, than with esteem.” And in Nepal, an International Media Mission identified increasing media ownership by political parties in 2012, as a key constraint in quality improvement. Even the selection of editors, the mission found, had “become subject of political deals and bargaining.”
The report’s section on India is not flattering either. It observes, “fear of adverse consequences from a number of exaggerated accounts of communal violence in neighbouring Myanmar — and unrelated outbreaks in the north-eastern state of Assam — led to a number of websites and blogs being blocked. A cartoonist was charged with sedition amid much public outrage. He was quickly discharged but a number of journalists facing charges of criminal conspiracy under antiterrorism law have not fared so well.”
It warns of an uncertain period ahead: “Industry fortunes went into freefall with the global economic meltdown of September 2008, but recovered within a year with strong stimulus measures kicking in. Advertising growth in the Indian economy picked up momentum in the following years, but in 2012 may have hit a slump. Projections show that the growth rate has fallen from the buoyant double digit figures of the years following 2003, to a relatively modest single digit.”
In his message, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon termed the attack on journalists as “an assault on the right of all people to truth” and expressed his anguish that “many of the perpetrators escape any form of punishment.” He rightly declared: “When it is safe to speak, the whole world benefits.”