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The fate of the ‘mightier pen’ 

The famous saying by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton – i.e. “the pen is mightier than the sword” – is a powerful and timeless statement that shows the power and role of the media, and it remains relevant even today. 

However, there is a serious question as to whether the society, politicians and States, and other stakeholders of a nation’s development, have created a proper environment for journalism to remain powerful, and whether the quality and recognition of journalism has remained unaffected and has developed to claim that power. The unfortunate reality is that crimes against the media are on the rise, and impunity against these crimes, are not being adequately addressed. 

The International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, which fell yesterday (2), is an important day commemorated to remind societies, Governments and the public of oppression against the media and also the responsibility of the said three parties to take a stand against those crimes. As far as Sri Lanka’s context regarding the matter is concerned, this day comes at a very crucial and alarming time. The People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists, located in The Hague, the Netherlands, was slated to launch its Tribunal yesterday to indict the Sri Lankan Government for the assassination of renowned Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and also against the Government’s prolonged failure to take effective measures to prosecute Wickrematunge’s murderers. 

In commemoration of this day, the United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres urged the international community to stand in solidarity with journalists around the world, and to demonstrate the political will needed to investigate and prosecute crimes against journalists and media workers with the full force of the law. 

Political will, in fact, is one of the most crucial aspects of this issue, which is prevalent in Sri Lanka as well. Overall, the nature of the relationship between the media and the country’s Government/governance system is not at a satisfactory level, despite the media having gained a name as the ‘fourth estate’ owing to the media’s power to influence many aspects of a society and country including the political and democratic system. In the Sri Lankan context, prominent and powerful figures, especially politicians, being hostile towards journalists and reporting is not at all uncommon, and especially when it comes to journalists reporting on matters of corruption pertaining to politicians and powerful people behind Sri Lanka’s political system.

In the last three decades, Sri Lanka has witnessed a number of crimes against journalists including murder, intimidation, assault, and abduction, and the banning and physical destruction of media institutions. However, the lion’s share of these incidents have gone unaddressed, leaving the discourses about crimes against the media and remedies to counter them, in a state of uncertainty.

In this context, there is no doubt or debate that the relationship between the media and the governing system, and also the relationship between the media and the rule of law, need to be strengthened from scratch, and thereby bring about much needed change in each party being responsible for their actions concerning other parties.

This change – or urging political will to uplift the protection of journalists, according to the UN Secretary General – is multifaceted. On the one hand, as has been stressed for decades, measures need to be taken to restrict unwarranted influence and other acts that amount to oppression against the media by the country’s political system, while on the other hand, the necessary protection and treatment can come from the other end of this discussion, i.e. the media, as well. To achieve the latter, there is a need to support the media field to gain more professional recognition and grow as a formalised and established industry, which would, in turn, ensure more legal and societal protection and recognition for the media. Such measures can create an environment where acts of oppression against the media are viewed as a more serious matter than they are now.

One of the best examples that show the necessity of such measures is the arrests and further legal action against web journalists, who were accused of various charges including spreading false information and being in contempt of court, during the past few years. The veracity and alleged ulterior motives behind these charges have been questioned by various parties. However, we cannot rule out the fact that web journalism does not receive the same recognition as print or other mainstream electronic media such as television. This is due to the free and easy access to the cyberspace, which builds on the notion that anyone can launch a website and be a web journalist, which consequently leads to the lack of support web journalists receive in cases of oppression against them. In this context, it would not be an exaggeration to say that even though having professional or educational qualifications to become a journalist has not been a must traditionally, making the media field more systematic, which should include strengthening legal and societal recognition and protection for them, is a big step that could be taken to ensure journalists protection especially when it comes to unwarranted, excessive legal action against them. 

These changes may take time; however, change aimed at protecting the media is necessary, and to make it a reality, how we try to bring about this change also needs to be changed.