Sunday, May 08, 2011

Free Speech and Its Perils: Ninth IFJ Press Freedom Report for South Asia

It is my honour to place before you the ninth press freedom report for South Asia, prepared by the International Federation of Journalists on behalf of partners and affiliates in the region, known collectively as the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN). As with the last five years, this year’s report has been supported by UNESCO and we place on record our appreciation for this. Unlike in the early years of this exercise, when we tended to focus on journalists’ safety as a single indicator of press freedom, we have in recent years been seeking to present a whole range of issues that have a bearing on the broader scenario of journalism as an activity in defence of human rights.

The 2011 edition of the South Asia Press Freedom Report (SAPFR) records that over the year under review, the hazards journalists faced in most countries in the region tended to be less lethal than earlier years. Yet, the sharp deterioration of an already bad situation in Pakistan far outweighed the relative improvement in the other seven countries. Again, even if there was a lessening of the threats to life that journalists faced, the challenges of securing decent wages and working conditions remain. To these could be added major concerns regarding professional standards, the uncertainties of the environment for news gathering as conventionally understood and the pressures that have been generated on codes of practice for journalists by the media industry’s changing commercial strategies.

To provide a brief and synoptic overview of the situation in the eight countries of South Asia.

Journalism remains a hazardous pursuit in the context of Afghanistan’s unending insurgency. The emerging power-sharing compact among the country’s more powerful political figures seems premised upon each of them having a stake in the media. Despite growing rapidly, the media in Afghanistan remains dependent on some form of subventions for survival, either from international donor agencies or local power lobbies.

Unlike in years immediately past, when the most dangerous parts of Pakistan were those that felt the spillover effect from Afghanistan most acutely, the year under review saw Balochistan assume that position. The northern part of Pakistan also remains dangerous and the sources of violence here are less predictable and the range of threats greater. Investments in safety remain an area of priority for Pakistan’s journalists, though few among the country’s media groups seem inclined to make the necessary commitments of resources.

Bangladesh is another country coming out of a long background of authoritarian military rule and seeking a pathway towards stable electoral democracy. Disagreements still run deep within civil society and the media community on the legacy of the country’s war of liberation and these are played out occasionally in an accusatory tone in media reporting and harsh retaliation by the political authorities. Frequent warnings are issued by governmental authorities about their intent to enforce a code of ethics for journalism. Bangladesh’s media community though has responded constructively and with some unity of purpose to these challenges.

Sri Lanka and Nepal are both coming out of years of conflict but along rather different trajectories. The political leadership in Sri Lanka continues to acknowledge the imperative of national reconciliation but there have been occasions when journalists have been prevented from attending the proceedings of the commission that is the main instrumentality of the process. As during the years of conflict, the cross-community dialogue remains weak, since the English and Sinhala language media are not seen to be providing adequate coverage to testimonies rendered in Tamil to the commission.

Nepal’s politics has remained unsettled and despite journalists’ bodies having succeeded in achieving far reaching legislative changes in the period of the interim constitution, these remain to be consolidated in practice. As in Sri Lanka, impunity for the worst crimes against journalists through the years of the war and the unsettled truce that followed, remains an overwhelming reality. Despite having secured a law that protects their entitlements, Nepal’s journalists continue to work for poor wages. Investments in quality and skills, though enjoined on media houses by the law, remain low or non-existent.

Bhutan and the Maldives, the two smallest countries in the region, are both in the process of political transformation, from an absolute monarchy in one case and a state of one-party rule in the other. Both face the difficulties of sustaining plural media in a context of modestly developed business infrastructures and low levels of advertising spending in the economy. Bhutan, where the government remains by far the largest advertiser, has seen a vigorous debate over the ad placement policy that would best serve the public interest and ensure a relatively open and plural media environment.

The Maldives has sorted out this issue by floating an official gazette that will be the sole medium for publishing government ads, a response that the country’s journalists believe is the worst possible in the circumstances. The Maldives has instituted credible constitutional and legal measures for defending press freedom. A regulatory body with the authority to decree an appropriate code of conduct for the media has been created by law, though sharp disagreements remain over the composition of this body. The Maldives president and parliament meanwhile, remain deadlocked over the future of the state-controlled media.

Despite having the largest industry and the longest established traditions of media freedom in the region, India has not always been able to set an example to be emulated in terms of media practice. As this report is produced, India’s journalists are in the midst of a campaign to ensure that the proposals of the most recent wage board for journalists and other newspaper employees are fully implemented. The wage board model of determining working conditions for newspaper workers, which has been adopted in other countries of the region, is under threat in its place of origin.

India’s journalists confronted serious ethical issues over the course of the year and came up with a credible analysis and understanding of the threat that the newly prevalent practice of “paid news” poses to the integrity of news gathering.

Ongoing conflicts and insurgencies in the north-eastern states of India, Jammu and Kashmir and the central Indian region, continue to cast a long shadow over journalism. Media communities have mobilised strongly to deal with these problems and are now more inclined to establish strong linkages with colleagues in the national capital and other major Indian metropolises, where the “national news agenda” is determined. This networking has also extended to forging global linkages and seeking international solidarity actions.

There were other events in India which pushed the issue of transparency to the foreground of public debate on the media. I need only mention the Radia tapes in this context and we provide a brief analysis in this report of that episode in the career of the Indian media.

In part, the mere fact that transparency in the media industry came to the foreground as an issue, was testimony to the growing power of the new media and the ability of India’s growing community of bloggers and cyber-activists to influence the course and content of public debate.

Finally, this report is about the imperatives of maintaining and expanding regional and national networks that track media rights violations and build organised power to defend and promote press freedom, freedom of association and the right to speak out.

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