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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Press freedom: no time for complacency

January 8 is a day of celebration in our household. It is my 15-year-old son’s birthday. After meeting exiled Sri Lankan journalist Sonali Samarasinghe about two years ago, the day became known for something else.
 On January 8, 2009 Sonali’s husband, Lasantha Wickrematunge was assassinated in Colombo while driving to work at the Sunday Leader.
I recall hearing about Wickrematunge’s murder seven months before meeting Sonali. His chilling “Voice from the Grave” leader in which he predicted his death was circulated via email around our newsroom in Cape Town.
Wickrematunge’s death didn’t make big news around the country, save for a snippet in a few papers and perhaps a brief mention on the television news. But it made me sit up and take more notice of events unfolding in Sri Lanka. The devastating effects of the December 2004 tsunami had been given considerable coverage. However, the protracted civil war was covered sporadically and often superficially.
Sonali and I met in the United States while on a journalism fellowship at the Nieman Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We struck up a friendship, swapped notes about sambal and curry recipes and also our country’s mutual passion for cricket.
More profoundly, through Sonali, I was given a crash course in the complex political landscape of her country, and how brave journalists risked their lives daily.

One day, Sonali, US journalist Beth Macy ( and myself crossed the Charles River to explore Boston. We stumbled upon the open New England Holocaust Memorial, its six luminous glass towers set on a granite path. We strolled through symbolic gas chambers amid suffocating steam, with tattooed numbers of the deceased on the walls. Then we came to Martin Niemöller’s chilling Dachau poem: “First they came for the Jews,…Then they came for me.”. It was a harrowing experience. For Sonali, at this point, it was unbearable. These were the words that her husband repeated in his editorial published days after his death.
As a journalist I realised how comparatively “normalized” South Africa had become. I had entered journalism during the last decade of apartheid. I negotiated my way through a myriad repressive media laws, a state of emergency and a flagrant abuse of human rights by the government. Then the country fought for – and won – press freedom. It was enshrined in the constitution at the dawn of democracy in 1994.
This was something else for Sonali and myself to swap notes about.
Sonali had joined the Nieman fellowship as a journalist in exile, just like a number of journalists from South Africa during apartheid, starting with the late Lewis Nkosi – an outspoken Drum writer – 50 years ago. Other outspoken journalists often flew to the sanctuary of the Nieman Foundation after being detained, banned and harassed.
In tribute, a handful of South African journalists have been honoured with the Nieman Foundation’s Louis Lyons Award for conscience and integrity, all during the apartheid era. Recipients include Max du Preez (1991), Zwelakhe Sisulu (1987), Allister Sparks (1985) and Joe Thloloe (1982).
In the year of our fellowship, Wickrematunge was honoured with the Louis Lyons award, securing a unanimous vote by our group of fellows (won jointly with Afghanistan journalists).
I returned home to South Africa after our fellowship ended last July. Sonali remained in the US, still fearing harassment if she returned to Sri Lanka.
In Cape Town, Sri Lanka has all but fallen off the news pages, except for a brief period this year during the World Cup Cricket tournament.At the Cape Times (, where I work, news about Sri Lanka rarely makes more than a brief, even though the paper stands apart from its competitors when it comes to international news. The reality is that space constraints have limited the paper to one dedicated page for world news.
But Sri Lanka is on the radar in journalistic circles. At last count, there were 19 journalists forced into exile, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. It is ranked fourth on the CPJ’s 2010 Impunity index, a ranking of countries where journalists are regularly murdered and governments fail to solve the crimes.
According to the CPJ: “Ten Sri Lankan journalists have been murdered over the past decade for their coverage of civil war, human rights, politics, military affairs, and corruption, but not a single conviction has been obtained. Most of those killings have come during (Mahinda) Rajapakse’s time as prime minister and president.”
According to Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2010, Sri Lanka is towards the bottom of the list, at 158 (with the worst being Eritrea at 178).
South Africa is relatively high up, at number 38, though it has slipped five positions since the previous year.
I write this as South Africa falls under the threat of censorship – unprecedented in the new SA. Politicians are showing increasing disdain for the media, the craft of journalism and the quest for truth. We face a statutory media appeals tribunal to monitor and regulate the press, we face new regulations in the form of a Protection of Information bill, which will censor state information, and the ANC-led government has stepped up its verbal attacks on the media, thus threatening to tarnish the country’s image as a bastion of press freedom.
Seventeen years into democracy, journalists are engaged in a new battle. The hard-fought freedoms that I was so proud of and felt so privileged to enjoy during my sabbatical in the US as recently as a year ago are now under attack.
These warning signs are a reminder that an open society can never be taken for granted. Press freedom is always under threat from the rich and the powerful. Threats are carried out in different ways, from censorship and banning to harassment and murder. We can never become complacent. Journalists from around the world – from Sri Lanka to South Africa – need to stand together to keep up the pressure.

*This article was first published on the new human rights website,

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