Regional seminar in Sri Lanka to promote regional cooperation to foster freedom of expression and ending impunity

Fostering safety of journalists and fighting impunity for crimes against journalists were the main topics of discussion during the seminar “Reinforcing regional cooperation to promote freedom of expression and the rule of law in Asia through ending impunity for crimes against journalists”, organized on 4 December 2017 in Colombo by UNESCO and the Ministry of Finance and Media of Sri Lanka.

Around 150 national, regional and international stakeholders from over 20 countries participated in the one-day event, the first meeting of its kind in the South Asian country and the main event of the commemoration of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists (IDEI) 2017.

Between 2006 and 2016, 107 journalists have been killed in Asia according to UNESCO statistics, but only 7% of these cases have been judicially resolved.

Next to national and international experts, representatives from several National Human Rights Commissions in Asia attended the event, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The seminar was opened by Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka who stated:

‘The media is the first line of defence against those who seek to undermine our democracy. (…) As a promise to the media, we will investigate and bring to justice those that have ended the lives of our journalists, and send a very clear message that this government will protect the journalists by all measures at hand”.

Commenting on the event, Sri Lankan journalist Sonali Samarasinghe said: “The rule of law is the fulcrum upon which a fair and just society rests and it must work in tandem with the independence of the judiciary, separation of powers and freedom of expression if we are to tread a path of peace and accountability.”

Ms Samarasinghe, the widow of the Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga, who received UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize after he was killed in 2009, added: “The state has a duty to guarantee that the violations we have experienced as a nation do not recur and a special duty to reform those institutions that have proven incapable of preventing the abuses”.

The event included discussion on the establishment of national protection mechanisms to protect journalists and prosecute the perpetrators of attacks against them. A second focus was on developing regional cooperation through National Human Rights Commissions and the civil society, as well as developing capacity of the judiciary and law enforcement agencies in Asia on these issues.

A specific session was also organised on the situation in Sri Lanka, titled: “Review of challenges and achievements”, which examined the state of freedom of expression and investigations on killed journalists in the country.

UNESCO director for freedom of expression and media development, Guy Berger told the participants that the Colombo seminar built further upon previous commemorations of IDEI, organized in San Jose, Costa Rica (2014), Strasbourg, France, (2015) and Arusha, Tanzania, (2016).

Berger noted that the importance of safety of journalists and ending impunity are recognised in the Sustainable Development Goal 16 on “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions”.

“This Goal calls for the promotion of the rule of law and equal access to justice for all, as well as ensuring public access to information and protecting fundamental freedoms,” he said.

The regional seminar in Colombo was organized the framework of the commemoration of IDEI 2017 with the support of the Open Society Foundation, with contributions from Norway, Internews, IFEX, International Media Support, Global Voices and the International Federation of Journalists.

UNESCO is the UN agency with a mandate to defend freedom of expression and press freedom. Since 2012, it has spearheaded the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, a systematic and UN-wide Plan to work toward a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers, with a view to strengthen peace, democracy and sustainable development worldwide, in both conflict and non-conflict situations.