Ladies and gentlemen it gives me great pleasure to speak a few words this evening on the occasion of the annual Peter Mackler Award.
I have not had the good fortune of a personal acquaintance with veteran journalist Peter Mackler, whose long and dedicated service to his profession, this award commemorates. However, I am greatly indebted to his wife Catherine Antoine, and their two children – Camille and Lauren – for their friendship and support both to my wife and I during a very stressful period in the past.
At this time last year, I was in prison having served precisely 54 days of a 20-year jail term with hard labour, imposed by the Sri Lankan courts after what the International Committee of Jurists, ICJ, said was “a flawed judicial process.”
This year, the Peter Mackler Award recognises a young man for his courage and commitment to ethical journalism – Ilya Barabanov. What is sad however, is that the Novoye Vremya the Moscow weekly of which he is the deputy editor, has been the victim of persistent harassment and intimidation by Russian authorities. What is ironic though is that the threat to the freedom of expression that Ilya and his colleagues confront in Russia is hardly different from what afflicts journalists in Sri Lanka. Though the two countries are vastly different in most respects, they are united by this common evil.
Of the many Sri Lankan journalists killed for their work and their deaths still unaccounted for, Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga’s murder is perhaps foremost. Less known but equally chilling was the brutal gunning down 10 years ago of Mylvaganam Nimalarajan. His murderers are still at large, and Reporters Sans Frontiers issued a statement this week pointing to the impunity protecting his killers.
Equally cruel and mystifying is the disappearance of another Sri Lankan journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. He was last seen on the evening of January 24 this year. Repeated calls by his wife and human rights groups for a fair investigation into his abduction, let alone information as to his whereabouts, have passed unheeded by the police and government authorities.
It is no different in Russia. The brutal slaying of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya of the Novaya Gazeta in October 2006 stands out because of the international publicity it has received. But in the heinousness of the crime compounded by the indifference of the authorities to investigate it, it is no different from numerous other cases. Disregard to principles of accountability and the rule of law have seen attacks on many Russian journalists go unpunished.
To scores of journalists confronting the perils of persecution and censorship, an award like the Peter Mackler, offers solace and encouragement. Such awards open a window of hope illustrating that although authoritarian governments might shun the work and persecute journalists, there is a world outside that appreciates and rewards it. Furthermore, it shines a spotlight on the issues they report on.
These awards are also important because they are given by the community of journalists to other journalists for courageous investigative writing. Such writing is often done in harrowing circumstances, to keep fellow citizens informed about powerful people behaving in unethical and criminal ways.
As much as persecuted journalists value the support and recognition of their fellows in countries such as the US and other democracies – the problem is - will this relationship be able to continue? Some of the emerging trends in US journalism seem to cast a shadow of doubt on this.
There is a school of thought today that says investigative journalism, the journalism that acts as a bulwark against excessive and untrammelled power, is in decline in the US itself.
A reason cited for this decline is the prohibitive cost for long-term tracking of stories with well-trained, experienced staff. Faced with maintaining a costly newsroom in times of contracting advertising budgets, the media has fallen back on the digital – internet, blogs and so on. But unfortunately, revenues generated by the websites of individual media organisations are generally said to be insufficient to fund pools of professionally-trained journalists required for sustained, high-quality investigative journalism.
Excessive costs have also resulted in media institutions cutting back on international reporting by closing or merging their overseas bureaus. This has led to an erosion of interest in international affairs except those that preoccupy American minds: Iraq, Afghanistan and neighbours in the region.
Another constraint on rigorous investigative journalism is privacy suits. In recent years the American judiciary has upheld claims by aggrieved individuals against the media not for defamation or inaccurate reporting, but for violating privacy. Fear of expensive law suites on privacy issues has dissuaded editors from pursuing investigative reporting even if the matter might be in the public interest.
With American journalism facing such constraints there is reasonable fear that investigative reporting by journalists from other countries will figure less prominently in the eyes of the US community of journalists.
Ladies and gentlemen, the reason Ilya and I are here today is because the community of journalists outside our respective countries believed in our work and that governments of our countries had no right to stop us from writing. But if indifference to investigative journalism sets in, in countries where it is most prized, journalists like us battling autocratic regimes for human rights, equity and justice will find it much harder to survive. Please do not let that happen.