Freedom of Expression Key to Democracy and Human Rights



Warren, immediate past President, International

Federation of Journalists, and Federal Secretary, Media, Entertainment &

Arts Alliance to the Lasantha Wickrematunge commemoration, Colombo, Sri Lanka, February 15, 2011.


These last few weeks have been

exhilarating for those of us who believe in democracy, human rights, freedom of

speech and the press.


First Tunisia

and now Egypt

have embarked on the exciting, tumultuous journey to free and democratic

societies. There can be no doubt that the most difficult part of that journey

is still to come and those countries – and the dominos that will inevitably

follow them – will require all the support possible from the international

community of friends and supporters of democracy.


And there can be no doubt that there

will be stumbles and disappointments along the way. But there can be no doubt

that the end result will be a freer, more open – more normal – society.


The events in north Africa are

exhilarating not just for their own sake. They are a beacon to the world.


Partly this is due to the

significance of Egypt as a

central player in Africa and the middle East.

It will force every country in the region to confront this question: If Egypt,

why not us?


But it is significant beyond its own

borders and its own region. It is significant because it marks the renewal of

the global march to democracy and human rights.


Over the past decade, this march has

stumbled due to two influences. First, the ill-named Global War on Terror came

to justify restrictions on human rights in the name of security, to encourage

the democratic world to compromise with authoritarian regimes in the name of

fighting terror and conflated the spread of democracy with the use of armed

force in Iraq and Afghanistan.


These restrictions came although as

that great journalist Benjamin Franklin warned us over two centuries ago: “They

who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve

neither liberty nor safety.”


Yet the sacrifices made in

traditional democracies acted not only to set back human rights in those

countries. It sent a message to authoritarian regimes around the world that

human rights was no longer the central concern that it should be for all

democratic nations.


At the same time, the economic

growth of China

within the strict authoritarian rule of the Communist Party gave new life to

the chimera beloved of leaders with authoritarian tendencies everywhere that economic

growth occurs best when coupled with strong man rule despite the corruption

that goes with it.


Yet we know from within our own

region how false that is. All authoritarian regimes sooner or later hit a wall

of economic growth that only genuine democracies can break through. We saw it

in Korea and Taiwan in 1988 and in Indonesia in 1998. In all those

cases, the crisis of authoritarianism could only be resolved through democratisation.


And now, the risings in Tunisia and Egypt have again put a full stop to

both these lies. They reopen the understanding that you can only fight terror

through democracy and only a democracy built on respect for human rights can

guarantee a strong and vibrant economy that eliminates corruption.


There’s a further development that

makes the examples of Tunisia

and Egypt

so exciting. They’ve been driven by the same groups that have been working for

democracy throughout the world – human rights and press freedom NGOs,

independent trade unions and working journalists.


They have not been driven by the

traditional political or oppositional groups but from broad based networks

reflecting the frustrations of the people.


For me – as I suspect it would have

been for Lasantha - the example of journalists is particularly exciting.


We need to be honest – many

journalists do well out of authoritarian regimes, particularly in cases like Egypt where so

much of the media is state-owned. They get the perks of status and public

recognition. They get to pontificate on national television about the

inevitability of strong man rule. They get to hobnob with political

heavyweights and get invited to drinks with the president. They are relatively

well paid. Too many of our colleagues fall into the trap of comfort and



Yet, as in case after case of

democratic revolution around the world, individual working journalists – particularly

the rising generation - have rushed to place themselves at the centre of the

north African risings.


Even within the state-owned media,

journalists have been fighting for – and winning - a free media, for the right

to report in the interests of the people, not of the State and the ruling

elite. Some have walked out, rather than compromise their journalist



And now we are seeing their battles

paying off with the likely break-up and democratisation of State-owned media

built on the principles of independent public service broadcasting and

publishing and the strengthening of independent and private media.


It will be these reforms, more than

any others, that will ensure that Egyptian and Tunisian democracy continues to

surge forward. And it is these battles that must lie at the heart of the

campaigning commitment of journalist communities.


It is clear from this, that there

are many lessons to be learnt from north Africa, not least here in Sri Lanka.


As I said, in most of the world,

democracy has marked time over the past decade.


Would that were the case here in Sri Lanka.

Instead it has gone backwards. And the murder of Sivaram in 2005, of Lasantha

Wickrematunge two years ago, the trial of Tissa, Jesiharan and Valamarty, the

effective exiling of friends like Poddala, Sanath and Sunanda, and the

disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda last year all stand as chilling monuments

to that deterioration.


Each of these marked a different

phase of that deterioration. The murder of Sivaram and the treason trials of

Tissa, Jesiharan and Valamarthy all in their own way marked a common goal of

both the Government of Sri Lanka and

the LTTE – the elimination of any independent, questioning space in the Tamil



The bashing of Poddala Jayantha and

others and forcing into exile so many other friends marked the attempt to

eliminate the sort of independent network of journalists, human rights NGOs and

independent unions in the media that, as Egypt

and Tunisia

shows, can be so challenging to an increasingly authoritarian ruling elite.


And the murder of Lasantha and the

subsequent disappearance of Prageeth marked the attempt to eliminate a

questioning and challenging media. I doubt there is a journalist in the country

that didn’t hear and understand the message that these two events sent.


Lasantha’s powerful message from the

grave And Then They Came for Me indicates how well he understood that the attacks on free and independent

journalism did not come in a vacuum – they came as part of a concerted push

against democracy and human rights.


He also well understood that, in

being attacked, he was not being singled out. As he said, he did not travel the

journey alone: “Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me:

most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off



And yet, though his murder was only

one of many, his standing in our craft meant his killing was more shocking than

most. Here was one of this country’s most senior journalists, a fiercely

independent editor of one of its leading independent papers, publisher of

critical investigative exposes of corruption and wrong doing.


And yet, if his standing could not

protect him, how should the rest of the craft stand up?


And yet journalists do. And that’s

because, as the actions of many of our colleagues in north Africa have reminded

us this year, free and independent journalism can only exist in a free and

democratic society built on human rights.


We are like fish who cannot live

without the sea of freedom of expression surrounding us.


An independent Sri Lanka

is about the same age as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so it is no

surprise that the challenge of human rights has been intertwined in the history

of an independent Sri Lanka from the

very beginning.


It has been a history punctuated

with human rights abuses from the denial of citizenship to the upcountry Tamils

in its very early days through to the murder of Lasantha and the disappearance

of Prageeth. It has included some of the world’s most terrible events from the anti-Tamil

Colombo pogrom in

1983 to the presentation of suicide bombings as the LTTE’s most enduring gift

to the world


Balancing these human rights abuses

have been an enduring democracy, flawed and inadequate as it has been at times.

A simulacrum of an independent judiciary has survived. Civil society has grown.


What intertwines human rights so

deeply in the history of Sri


is not that it has been the worst of societies, any more than it has been the

best. It is that from the very beginning of the country’s independence, human

rights have always been the central contested terrain of struggle.


I have long believed that the

history of Sri Lanka can only

really be written and understood as a history of the struggle for human rights.


With the murder of Lasantha, the

disappearance of Prageeth, freedom of expression has become the centre of the

struggle because you cannot have a society founded on human rights without the

right of freedom of expression. And, you cannot have freedom of expression

without a society founded on human rights.


Freedom of expression underpins some

other rights directly – the right to practice your religion freely, the right

to peaceful assembly as well as freedom of speech or, narrowest of all, freedom

of the media. None of these rights exists without the right to freely express.


It’s integral to the rights of

women, minority groups and disadvantaged groups. They cannot be empowered

without being empowered through their own freedom to express themselves. That’s

why I have no truck with those who argue that freedom of expression is marginal

to the struggles of the disadvantaged. Those struggles cannot even have the

words to express themselves if they are not empowered to speak.


It’s bundled up in the right to a

fair trial – part of a fair trial is to be tried in the open.


And it underpins all other rights –

rights of security, rights against arbitrary arrest, rights to citizenship,

rights against torture because it – along with an independent judiciary – is

the means for enforcing these rights. It’s the means for exposing abuse and by

exposing end them


Freedom of expression is the catalyst

that enables every other right to be freely exercised.


While freedom of the press is really

only a subset of the broader right of freedom expression, traditionally, it’s

been through journalists like Lasantha and Prageeth bravely exercising our

craft here in Sri Lanka that the

struggle for human rights has been reported and made known.


And that’s why they and so many

other journalists have become the target.


Like every other person, a

journalist has a right against abduction, against illegal imprisonment, against

torture and against murder. Yet now, for reporting, for analysing, for questioning,

for – in short – doing their job, too many journalists have found themselves in

the vortex of spiralling human rights abuse in Sri Lanka.


And so Lasantha was murdered and

Prageeth disappeared.


It is easy in this environment to

think things will never get better.


But Tunisia

and Egypt

show the decade of marking time is over.


Yet again, authoritarian rule has

failed the people – even the sort of soft authoritarianism that uses the veneer

of elections to conceal the abuse of human rights.


And it will be up to journalists to

make a difference – but it will not be up to us alone. We need to learn the

lessons that our friends and colleagues in Tunisia

and Egypt

have taught us all over again.


First, we cannot compromise our

craft. Journalism in the service of an authoritarian state is not journalism at

all. It is merely words on a page or voices in the airwaves. Journalism must

stand, as it always has, for respect for the truth and respect for the public’s

right to know.


Second, we must continue to stand

together. The solidarity of the organised media community in Sri Lanka

– reflected in the coming together of the six organisations – is a model for

the island. The media community – the journalists community - is the only

community that appears to be capable of transcending the divisions that cause

so much havoc in Sri Lanka.


I know that solidarity has been

tested over the past two or so years. It is understandable that under the

unbearable pressure that journalists have been under, that tensions have broken

out. We all know some friends and colleagues have felt abandoned as a result.


Yet that support and solidarity has

largely endured and made bearable the pressures that journalists have faced.

And now, it lays the basis for renewing the struggle for a genuinely free and

democratic media.


And third, emerging information

technologies are shattering the monopoly we used to enjoy as the sole conduit

of information to our communities.


Now, newspapers, radio and TV are no

longer the sole source of information. Social media like Twitter and Facebook

and Web 2.0 like bloggers, citizen journalists and news web sites all add

immeasurably to the mix, although none of them are a substitute for independent

journalism. We can see the challenge they pose to elites with the recent

burning of LankaENews.


But they do more than simply add to

the total volume of information.


The potential of these technologies

shatters the paradigm that successive Sri Lankan

governments have followed. They cannot shut off the faucet of news and

information by political appointments to run state-owned media, pressuring

advertisers to abandon independent media and threatening, abusing and murdering



Finally, we need to remember that

the risings in Tunisia and Egypt were driven as much by the economic

failings of authoritarian rule – and this is the blow it strikes against the so

called “China



The people in Tahrir Square in Cairo know what every economist knows:

authoritarian rule – soft or hard – inevitably acts to conceal corruption and

corruption is the major impediment to genuine economic growth and decent living

standards for ordinary people.


Rising prices, unemployment and

underemployment, corruption – only a democracy built on human rights can

confront these challenges.


Despite all this, when it comes to

human rights and freedom of expression, the Sri Lankan

government is like a general fighting the last war, using the tactics that

worked so well in the 1980s and at a loss to understand why they do not work

this time around.


And as they have struggled to

understand, the government and their military and paramilitary allies, lashed

out ever more wildly and ever more journalists fell victim to their failure to

understand the world in which we all live.


And, in the short term, they



But now, the challenge for us as

journalists, as believers in democracy and human rights, is to seize the

historic turning that north Africa has illuminated.


We have to reassert the fundamental

right of all the peoples of the world and of Sri Lanka.

The right to have real meaning put into democratic structures and to have them

leavened with human rights, including the right to safety and the right to

freedom of expression.


Like Sri Lanka,

my country is an island. But as the global march of democracy and human rights

resumes, no countries will be islands for long.



For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on

+612 9333 0919



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