The world as we've known it changing forever. A few months ago, we were worrying over climate change. Now there are reports of the earth healing. There are more and more write ups on empathizing with animals, comparing life in lockdown with that of animals in zoos. Wars have been paused because, well, heath matters more than whatever it is that countries are fighting over, and Syria has recorded lowest monthly civilian death toll in nine years. On one hand, there is a pandemic and on the other, we get these snippets of good news. Individually too we are asking ourselves, about what matters in our lives, what we should hold on to or let go. Yes, of course, there are some issues that have not gone through this arch, such as racism, xenophobia, domestic and child abuse. But still, one has to admit, it’s not the same world. When the lockdown is over, and we return to our ‘normal’ lives, it’s not going to be normal.

In such a transitional time, today marks the World Press Freedom Day, and it’s important to take a moment to understand what that means in today’s Sri Lanka.

First of all, there are skeletons from the past, haunting the media sector today - white vans, abductions ,killings, intimidation, and harassment. Committee to Protect Journalists wrote on April 28, 2020 that this past has led “some (journalists) to fear that there will be a fresh round of violence and abuse”, and as a result, journalists are resorting to self-censorship. The CPJ report speaks of two journalists who have gone into exile since the election, and eight journalists in Batticaloa receiving death threats recently, newspaper editors being asked not to be too critical of the current regime . While government sources have denied these charges, these incidents and the self-censorship indicates the fear most of the journalists are experiencing while doing their day to day reporting.

Our rights take a special place at times of crisis. It stops being obvious. It becomes a collateral victim during this time. Like our right to have access to information. During the pandemic, like in any other time – or may be more than any other time, free flow of accurate information is crucial. Media should be strengthened to be the Fourth Estate of the country, to stand independently, to present news objectively, without the coloured lenses of various political agendas. In this, public has a role to play too.  

But today, the public is more interested in the person who reads the newspapers on television than the journalist who writes those news articles. The focus of conversations, the bickering on social media has been about the financials packages those presenters agreed to when they join the new TV channel, and not about the journalists who got pay cuts because the newspapers didn’t get enough advertisements last few weeks. Whether the journalists are given adequate training to cover an issue like coronavirus, whether they are provided with protective gear when they go on coverage, or whether they are getting adequately compensated has barely made it to the periphery of the discussion but no more than that. Had that been the case, the public would know that most of the freelance journalists lost their jobs in the last few weeks, other journalists have got pay cuts. They go to work too, despite the virus, get to make sure you get the updated news, on the newspaper, website or the SMS alert.

As the UN Chief António Guterres in a statement on World Press Freedom Day said, media has been helping people make informed decisions and those “decisions can make the difference between life and death. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said that globally, nearly every freelance journalist has lost revenue or work opportunities, and more than half of all journalists in their survey are suffering from stress and anxiety. This is not a request to give a round of applause to journalists covering COVID19. This is a reminder that media is there to protect the public, but for that to happen, the public has to protect media too.

Sure, there are problems that needs to be addressed. Egging on racism is a problem. So is being the mouthpiece of political parties and nothing else. Showing people who are put under quarantine on TV is a problem too. The difference here is that for print media, Sri Lanka Press Complaint Commission monitors violation of media ethics, whereas for the electronic media and online media, no such entity exists.  There was a video clip circulated on social media a few weeks ago where a journalist from a prominent electronic media house said that they do not believe in coming up with ethic guidelines and limiting their freedom. But if the state or another authority comes up with a set of ethics, they’d follow. The public has started making noises about media ethics, call on the TV channels to abide by a set of rules. But that’s not enough. There has to be a demand for the freedom of press too – independent, unbiased, free press.  

The point is, you see the problem, you complain. Great. But that doesn’t prevent the problem from happening in the future, not long term anyway, unless there is a bigger call for independent free press. On the other hand, the other side of the coin is that the public has a right to receive unbiased, impartial information. And the best way to get it is through fighting for press freedom. Don’t let your right to information be a collateral victim too

In the time of social media, one can say that everyone with access to internet is a journalist. You take a photo, and post it – that could become news. Same goes for information. It becomes more complicated with the rapid spread of fake news and states are compelled to address it by imposing various laws – which could be essential. But it’s also important for the states to strengthen accurate flow of information to journalists. Not as part of propaganda, but as unbiased information. While press releases are of importance, it’s more important to have a proper RTI (Right to Information) mechanism in place.

Press freedom is not something the state or the public need to fear. It’s another essential element in our society to ensure that there is checks and balances, that hold people, authorities, accountable for their actions, for what they say. Right to information needs to be strengthened to make the free press more independent and access to information laws, fake news laws should be in place as tools to keep the media in check. An ideal situation would guarantee journalists the safety, and access to accurate information without political interference, and their news and feature stories, their investigations, will stand as public watchdogs.