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Last week in many countries where a free press still flickers despite the creeping hand of authoritarianism that stretches to snuff it out, World Press Freedom Day was observed for the 30th consecutive year.

It was particularly so in countries that have seen the killing and disappearance of journalist colleagues either by the hand of the state or by those who have most to fear by the exposure of their malfeasance or politically or religiously-driven acts of terrorism that have claimed many professional lives last year too.

A few days earlier Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe put off the tabling in parliament of the government’s new Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB) reportedly to give the public and civil society time till the end of May to present their views and concerns on this draft legislation purportedly to counter terrorism.

Some might wonder what connection there is between media freedom and the government’s intended anti-terrorism law. But there is and that is the rub.

Though the bill’s title focuses on ‘terrorism’ which the citizenry has experienced for years at different times and therefore raising fears in the minds of many, the real intent is much wider than it seems and the Government is ready to concede.

The bill encompasses areas and creates offences that go way beyond what is seen as a means of combatting terrorism as we have witnessed over the years. It goes beyond the publicly declared intention of countering terrorism which itself is so broadly defined that almost any act could be characterised as an act of terrorism, depending on the ‘mindset’ of some police officers who, under the new bill, would have the powers of arrest and ordering the detention of persons.

If there are still those who feel that the media have raised unnecessary fears that the bill is intended to target the press, constrain its freedom of expression and crush dissent, they might read the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in his anniversary message.

“… as we mark 30 years of World Press Freedom Day, all around the world, we are seeing the forceful closure of those frontiers and an alarming and aggressive trend towards the shutdown of freedom of speech.

“We see a new normal where they (journalists) face mounting threats. A new normal of outright silencing of the people who work to inform, expose and hold those in power to account through defamation, censorship, routine media shutdowns, arbitrary arrest, or direct online and physical attacks on them, their friends, and their families.

“In 2022, 87 journalists were killed, the vast majority with impunity. A record 323 were imprisoned. These are intolerable statistics.

“Journalism is not a crime, yet an artillery of new laws and lawsuits tell a different story.

“Under the guise of criminal cyber-libel, anti-terrorism, cybersecurity, and “fake news” laws, more than ever, governments can stifle journalists and conceal inconvenient truths.”

The last sentence is a telling indictment on the State’s war to humble and stymie the media and the reference to “anti-terrorism” is a stark reminder of what Sri Lanka’s new bill foretells.

Interestingly, a report by the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists underscores the hypocrisy of some Western nations that preach human rights and freedom of expression to others but move to suppress them in their own countries.

“The European Union (EU) is inconsistent in delivering on its own commitments to press freedom,” the CPJ says in a special report released last week titled “Fragile Progress: The struggle for press freedom in the European Union”.

It finds a gap between the democratic ideals that the EU espouses and the reality of how it and its member states pursue their interests”. It draws attention to what it calls “The rampant war of disinformation and the recent spate of brutal journalist murders within EU borders”.

In another report to be released this week titled “Deadly Pattern”, it revisits 20 cases of journalists killed by Israel forces over the last 22 years and documents the scope of Israeli military killings of journalists and how the country’s seeming refusal to pursue justice for slain reporters undermines the freedom of the press

Space limitations do not permit me to expatiate on some provisions of the ATB that could be twisted to pose serious threats to the mainstream and social media and its practitioners under the current bill which Justice Minister in a hallucinatory moment called a “progressive” piece of legislation. He is right—that is if regression means progressive.

Fellow columnist Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena writing in the Sunday Times recently amply demonstrated the legal implications and what the media and dissentient voices — be they civil society movements or trade unions or even activists — have to fear from the ATB which is dangled as the purification of the atrocious PTA.

This is like offering that infamous “paniya” as a panacea for Covid-19.

At a recent News 1st TV panel discussion, Justice Minister Rajapakshe explained that powers of arrest and detention were transferred from the relevant minister to the police because of criticism that until now politicians were invested with such authority.

If that was a justification, nothing could be sillier. Power still remains in the hands of the executive though not directly at the political level. But handing it over to the police, knowing only too well the reputation of this khaki-uniformed fraternity and the unforgettable and unforgivable ‘esteem’ the police enjoy in the public mind, one is reminded of that old saying about being pushed from the frying pan into the fire.

While some might very well question the sanity of this transfer of authority from a political figure to an even more notorious institution, spread across the entire country, whose officers conduct themselves like the Tribunes of ancient Rome, one is attempted to ask why that power could not be invested with the judiciary.

Surely between these three bodies, public faith rests more in the judiciary than in either a political minister or the police.

Moreover, in an unexpected mood of sagacity, the present IGP confessed that around 90% or so of the OICs of police stations, are politically recommended officers and several of them did not have the qualifications or experience to hold that position.

So the minister’s remark that taking away the power from the minister and residing it in the police to eliminate political influence is nothing but a hollow boast. Now the probability of influence or bias has been multiplied a myriad times.

It is as ludicrous as Mass Media Minister Bandula Gunawardena’s remarks in connection with World Press Freedom Day. He reportedly said “It is the Government’s responsibility to give journalists the opportunity to behave freely without threats and intimidation, and the Government has fulfilled that duty to the letter.”

And what letter is that Mr Minister? It is not in our alphabet.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)

 

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