Another World Press Freedom Day rolls along on 3 May. Seminars and rallies are to be held, prizes distributed and reports released, all to bemoan the lack of press freedoms and mourn the passing of journalist colleagues. The global spotlight is sought to be turned on what are termed the ‘most dangerous places’ for journalists – hotspots where the media is at risk when it does it its job well. But what do these figures really tell us?
The numbers of journalists killed in connection with their work vary even among watchdog groups. According to the Paris-based Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF), 60 scribes were killed in 2008, down from 86 in 2007. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), headquartered in New York, puts that figure at 41, down from 65 last year. The reduction in figures is mostly attributed to the changing (improving?) situation in Iraq over the past year. The International Federation of Journalists’ (IFJ) figure, meanwhile, stood at 85, 33 of which were from the Asia-Pacific region.
Figures vary with critical definitions, as well, such as that of journalist. Some organisations, like IFJ, include in their accounting media staff and ‘fixers’, who are essential for international journalists who land up in a particular country to get the story. The line of duty is also interpreted variously, with some including accidental deaths while on the job, and some keeping the focus on journalists deliberately targeted and murdered.
Still, there is a story even behind these statistics. According to IFJ, two journalists were killed in Sri Lanka in 2008, as compared with six in 2007. The press-freedom watchdog points out, however, that the lower toll “does not indicate improved safety and protection”. Rather, says the IFJ, “it underscores that far fewer journalists are able to work in war-torn provinces” in the country. What the figures also hide is the reality of a systematic campaign of psychological warfare against the media in Sri Lanka. Indeed, press-freedom activists estimate that there are as many as 42 Sri Lankan journalists in self-exile today, having fled for their lives after receiving explicit threats, and currently are unable to practice their craft.
It is almost impossible to calibrate the degree of self-censorship practiced as a survival tactic. Simply put, no story is worth dying for, and the risk to self is often subjective and difficult to judge, with editors and reports playing safe rather than risk ending up dead, maimed or bankrupt. But what does the act of ‘dumbing down’ the news in order to survive tell us about a society? When allowed to flourish, intolerance – from governments, militant groups and criminal elements – has a direct impact on the media. Whether in a country at war, such as Sri Lanka, or a relatively new democracy, such as Nepal, the challenges to press freedom are many. When the media stops investigating and driving at the truth of a situation; when it holds back on reporting processes and events ‘in the national interest’; and when editors and reporters are cowed down into silence or becoming mouthpieces because the price, otherwise, is too high – well, the end result is an insidious silencing of dissent that does not show up on any scale.
It is for this reason that assessing accountability and commitment to rule of law is perhaps a more useful index when attempting gauge freedom of expression, the health of the media and democratic norms in general. The CPJ’s Impunity Index, released in March and titled “Getting Away with Murder”, spotlighted countries in which journalists are slain and killers allowed to go free. Compiled for the second year, the index calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders (since 1999) as a percentage of a country’s population. Although war zones such as Iraq, Sierra Leone and Somalia top the list, Southasia has the distinction of making up almost half of the entire index. Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India among the countries where there is a marked lack of commitment in bringing to justice the killers of journalists.
It was in 1993 that the UN General Assembly declared 3 May to be World Press Freedom Day. The idea was to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press, and to “remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. The worldwide observation of this “special day” follows the pattern of a 24-hour spotlight on issues that, when it comes down to it, ought be on the agenda throughout the year. Perhaps it is fitting that seminars and conferences are held on the day, as 3 May happens to be the day the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media was adopted in 1991, in Windhoek, Namibia.
Yet even as UNESCO posthumously honours Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga with the World Press Freedom prize on 3 May, his killers have yet to be identified and brought to book. Let us remind ourselves one more time that journalists are both the barometer and the weather vanes of modern society. When they are threatened, and when they succumb to threats, it is not long before freedom of the rest of society also evaporates.