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.
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
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
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
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
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
It is easy in this environment to
think things will never get better.
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
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
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
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.
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