Last week’s revelation that Tamilnet had been blocked to Sri Lankan citizens took the country yet another step further away from media freedom, posing the question: How much worse must the situation become before things start to improve? It was against this bleak backdrop that journalists, academics and human rights activists and colleagues gathered at a memorial lecture which drew lessons from the life, as well as the death, of journalist Dharmaratnam Sivaram.
On the 28th April 2005, the 46 year old was abducted in broad daylight outside Bambalapitiya police station and his abandoned body was discovered the following day. Sri Lankan media and international journalists’ organizations condemned the murder as an attack on press freedom but one year later, the perpetrators of this politically motivated killing are yet to be brought to justice. Sivaram was not only a journalist, but also a political columnist for the Daily Mirror and a founding member and contributor to the Tamilnet news website. He was also a sympathizer of Tamil nationalism and as he wrote supportively of the LTTE, he was considered a spy and an enemy, both of the State and of the LTTE breakaway group, the Karuna faction. The memorial lecture was delivered by journalist Lakshman Gunasekera who used the opportunity to reflect on the situation in Sri Lanka, under the title Ã¢Â€ÂœGood News for the Good? Media, the fantasy of empire and Sri Lankan futures – some journalistic reflections.Ã¢Â€Â He suggested that media organisations and their audiences are essentially two sides of the same coin, given that journalists and editors unconsciously sway towards the general thinking of their audiences through their work rather than writing with deliberate policy or a political motive. He also went on to say that even the powerful medium of television and other audiovisual means had not been enough to overcome the Ã¢Â€Âœbarriers of hatredÃ¢Â€Â despite all the efforts put in place in recent years.
Despite Sivaram’s extreme views, the fact remains that his murder has resulted in another name joining the several thousand others on the list of journalists that have been killed or abducted as a direct result of expressing their opinion. And those who aren’t disappearing are having their names tarnished with accusations based on nothing but the rickety foundations of mistrust and stereotype.Ã‚Â And as news breaks of more and more restrictions, journalists and media personnel have legitimate reason to be nervous. But when should they stop simply being nervous and start looking out for white vans? There are few human rights activists, NGO and INGO workers or those working in the media that haven’t been branded as supporters of terrorism or against the Government of Sri Lanka in return for openly declaring their anti-war stance and as the situation continues to worsen rather than improve, the frightening question is how many more Sivarams will it take before there is a shift in this barbaric cycle?
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters without Borders (RSF) published a report earlier this year which stated that 2006 was the worst year for journalists across the world with record numbers being killed, abducted or harassed while doing their job. 81 media persons were killed last year, the highest annual toll since 1994 when 103 died, half of them in the Rwanda genocide, about 20 in the Algerian civil war and a dozen in former Yugoslavia.
As Sri Lanka’s contribution to these alarming statistics becomes ever more substantial, the importance of remembering people such as Sivaram and their contributions becomes all the more significant. In providing free access to alternative perceptions to all, wherever they were on the island or indeed in the world and whatever their political views, he gave something which is now gradually being taken away. Ã‚Â