Freedom of Expression Key to Democracy and Human Rights


Christopher 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 compromise.


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 principles.


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 community.


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 lands.”


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 Lanka 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 journalists.


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 model”.


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 prevailed.


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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