Key Challenges for Media after War’s End

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Report of the International Press Freedom Mission to Sri Lanka January 2010

All through a quarter-century-long civil war, Sri Lanka witnessed a deeply polarised political environment in which media tended to become a target of systematic abuse and attack. With the government and the principal armed groups involved in the conflict giving little latitude to the possibility of a negotiated solution, media were actively dissuaded from pursuing a process of social dialogue that could potentially explore alternatives to the strategy of war. At the same time, there was an active denial of space for exploring critical stories about the individuals and institutions involved in the war effort.

The de facto separation of the north and the east from the central administration created two distinct political entities and cultural spheres, both equally hazardous to media. In an unrelentingly hostile and threatening environment, media professionals in all parts of the country were obliged to adopt self-censorship and other strategies to merely protect themselves from bodily harm and verbal abuse. Many of those who refused to follow these rules of self preservation invariably came under threat. Violence, intimidation and murder of journalists was common throughout the war.

The war was officially declared over in May 2009. However, the environment for the media turned markedly worse in the war’s last phase. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), with the support of the European Commission (EC) and International Media Support (IMS), subsequently organised a press freedom mission to Sri Lanka in November 2009 to investigate the prevailing situation for media, journalists and journalists’ organisations, looking ahead to identify opportunities for positive change. This exercise was the fourth in a sequence of international press freedom missions to Sri Lanka, each involving a broad range of concerned organisations. The three earlier missions took place in October 2006, June 2007 and October 2008. Their entire record is available at the website of IMS which was principal organiser of all three missions.1 The November 2009 mission involved extended interactions with various stakeholders, all keen to restore autonomy and freedom to media practice in Sri Lanka. The political contests that are coming up in Sri Lanka in the next six to 12 months are seen as both an opportunity and a potential threat. Media practitioners believe that they have a chance to create additional space for themselves. But at the same time, there is a potential for greater violence as the politics of confrontation sharpen through the upcoming election campaign. This report outlines the findings of the mission investigations and the key challenges facing the media in Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war.