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The Perilous State of Freedom of Expression


Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Brief

Today is World Press Freedom day

World Press Freedom Day is observed on May 3 to remind the world that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights. Many journalists have died or are in jail for daring to speak the truth.

World Press Freedom Day was established by the General Assembly of the UN in December 1993 after a seminar in Namibia led to the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration that called to establish, maintain and foster an independent, pluralistic and free press. It emphasised the importance of a free press for developing and maintaining democracy in a nation and for economic development.

Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that everyone “has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Data gathered revealed that 45 journalists were killed worldwide in 2023 while 320 journalists were imprisoned, the highest in the last 20 years.

In the ongoing Gaza war, Israel has been deliberately targeting Palestinian journalists – and their families – who are exposing the suffering and slaughter of Gazans, many of them children, as well as Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank. Investigations by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) showed that as of May 1, 2024 at least 97 journalists and media workers were among the more than 35,000 killed since the war began on October 7. CPJ is also investigating numerous unconfirmed reports of other journalists being killed, missing, detained, hurt or threatened and of damage to media offices and journalists’ homes.

Across the world, images of protesters being tear gassed and brutally beaten for their support for the Palestinians are flooding social media. In the US, university students face police assaults as they occupy campuses. In a country that preaches the virtues of press freedom to other countries, news reporters and anchors in mainstream US media organisations are being sacked for daring to question the Israeli government’s version of events.

Successive Sri Lankan have shown little regard for freedom of the press or respect for journalists as they use the country’s many harsh laws to suppress dissent and harass protesters. In its 2022/2023 annual report on the state of the world’s human rights, Amnesty International criticised the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), saying that it included new offences categorising acts of civil disobedience as terror offences.

The report accused the government of weaponising the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act (ICCPR Act) against freedom of expression by arresting social media commentator Sepal Amarasinghe for comments made on YouTube deemed offensive to Buddhism. He was released following an unconditional public apology in February last year. In May 2023, authorities arrested comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya for comments made during a stand up comedy show that were allegedly disrespectful of Buddhism. Bruno Divakara, who runs a YouTube channel that published Nathasha Edirisooriya’s performance, was also arrested a few days later. They were both given bail in July; the cases against them remained pending.

In January this year the government passed a bill to regulate online communication and safety. The Office of the Hight Commissioner for Human Rights said that “many sections of the Bill contain vaguely defined terms and definitions of offences which leave significant room for arbitrary and subjective interpretation and could potentially criminalize nearly all forms of legitimate expression, creating an environment that has a chilling effect on freedom of expression”.

In its 2023 Report on Human Rights Practices, the US State Department said that restrictions on hate speech were applied selectively, with hate speech against Muslims more tolerated than against other groups. “There were also reports that authorities attempted to intimidate individuals who criticised the government including through public statements, questioning by security officials, official visits at their homes and arrests. Civil society accused the government of using the ICCPR and penal code provisions against hate speech to curtail freedom of expression,” the report said.

A fierce defender of fundamental human rights rights and law professor, Professor Savitri Goonesekere, answered questions from Groundviews on the state of freedom of expression in the country and what the international community and citizens of Sri Lanka can do to protect their rights.

The government is seeking to curtail freedom of expression through repressive laws such as the Online Safety Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act. Why should this concern citizens of this country?

Freedom of expression refers to the idea that a human person has a right to express their thoughts and ideas, and communicate them in human interaction. Throughout history the politics of power encourages suppression of ideas and thoughts that do not conform to what is desired by the decision makers in a society. Yet from antiquity human history shows how this right to communicate has been fought for, and claimed by people. In Sri Lanka Gauthama Buddha’s teaching was embedded in the concept of freedom to think, reflect and express diverse and even conflicting  ideas. There is a great deal of information that the concept was recognised in our country even in antiquity. This is one reason why the idea of freedom of expression was easy to recognise, accept and incorporate in post-independence governance although it was also an idea that came from the British colonial period. The enormous gains in citizens access to public health and education were made because of this vibrant recognition of diverse view points and consensus arrived through debate and discussion. Participatory and consultative law reform, policy formulation and allocation of national resources cannot be achieved when freedom of expression is restricted. Restriction of the right denies citizens the right to demand and achieve accountable governance by the rulers. This is also why freedom of expression is a foundational right incorporated and given to citizens in our Constitution although this was also manifested in many aspects of received colonial law. It is a right connected to all other human rights, especially the right to freedom of thought and information. Repressive laws that restrict or deny this right therefore undermine other core freedoms that impact citizens lives.

Is there significance in the fact that this is an election year?

Yes this is critical at the time of elections. People must have access to all information without censorship if they are to exercise their important franchise in an informed manner. Responsible exercise of the franchise as a basic and precious democratic right demands media freedom and access to diverse sources of information. Censorship in any form also benefits the regime in office and encourages the dissemination of false and pro-government biased information that distorts the electoral process. A free and fair election cannot be held where the right to freedom of expression is restricted or denied.

How can the international community bring pressure to bear on the government to adhere to its international obligations?

Any expression of views on this matter by international organisations within and outside Sri Lanka is  often incorrectly perceived as an interference with Sri Lankan sovereignty as a nation. Sadly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs too has adopted this approach and it seems to have had a chilling impact on the local UN system. This was not so in the past, even in the worst times of armed conflict. Sri Lanka has ratified all the major international human rights treaties and our Supreme Court has integrated those norms into our legal system. Therefore the role of the UN and international human rights system is to remind Sri Lankan governments of these obligations, helping and supporting them to protect and implement these citizen rights and the government’s own state obligation. Silence on their part gives legitimacy to violation of the state obligation and the rights of citizens.

What can ordinary citizens do to fight against the erosion of freedom of expression

The citizens’ right to freedom of expression must be given meaning by them in their personal lives, in the home, in the community and in their employment and professional work spaces. Respect for view point differences and criticism of ideas and views in a non-confrontational environment is essential if this right is to be protected. Citizens having conversations on different viewpoints and working towards consensus is the bedrock of the citizens’ right freedom of expression.

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