Next Wednesday, May 3 is World Press Freedom Day and the United Nations in a statement says the year’s theme is “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies”. Indeed a deep and significant theme which journalists need to reflect upon, especially in Sri Lanka where after January 2015 with the restoration of media freedom, we have also seen many instances of the misuse or abuse of such freedom.
According to the UN, media freedom and access to information feed into the wider development objective of empowering people. Empowerment is a multi-dimensional social and political process that helps people gain control over their own lives. This could only be achieved through access to accurate, fair and unbiased information, representing a plurality of opinions, and the means to actively communicate vertically and horizontally, thereby participating in the active life of the community.
The UN says this engine is driven by the fuel of information and therefore access to information is critical. Freedom of information laws, which permit access to public information are essential, but so are the means by which information is made available, be it through Information and Communication Technology or the simple sharing of documents. We are glad that to mark this year’s Press Freedom Day, Sri Lanka has an advanced and fully fledged Right to Information Law, which is widely seen as one of the best in Asia. Playing a key role in implementing Sri Lanka’s RTI law is the RTI Commission and we are confident that its members will act with courage and dedication in ensuring that elected leaders act transparently and are accountable to the people.
The UN points out that Information can change the way we see the world around us, our place in it and how to adjust our lives to maximize the benefits available through our local resources. Fact-driven decision-making can significantly alter our political, social and economic perspectives. Therefore, open and pluralistic media are, perhaps, most precious when they simply provide the mirror for society to see itself. These moments of reflection are instrumental in defining community objectives, making course corrections when society or its leaders have lost touch with each other or gone astray.
The right to access information can be interpreted within the legal frameworks that support freedom of information as it applies to information held by public bodies or in a wider sense to encompass both access and circulation of information held by other actors. Then it becomes intrinsically linked to freedom of expression, the UN says.
Freedom of information and the transparency it promotes, has a direct consequence on fighting corruption, which in turn has a tangible impact on development. The World Bank’s former president James Wolfensohn often identified government corruption as the primary hindrance to development and an independent media sector as the number one movement to fight public corruption.
Indeed on a day like this, Sri Lanka’s journalists need to reflect on the extent to which we are playing this role, without promoting party political agendas or the vested interests of others. Critical minds for critical times would also mean that Sri Lanka’s journalists should move into highly professional levels in areas such as investigative and interpretative reporting, creative and imaginative feature writing. A famous American publisher has said that news is something that someone wants suppressed. The rest is advertising. So journalists need to critically analyse our role and see whether we have the conviction and the courage to expose what powerful groups or people are trying to suppress or whether we are giving a free media coating to what is largely advertising. Media conferences, party meetings and similar promotional events need to be covered but with the awareness that such reports are more like advertising.
That is why the Sri Lanka Press Institute, the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka and other institutions need to give top priority to the training of highly professional journalists who see their work as a vocation and are not too interested in bylines or buylines. But in giving the people fair, balanced and accurate information so that they could make not just a choice but an informed choice based on facts and figures and not fake news.