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World Press Freedom Day 2009: Focus on media, dialogue and mutual understanding

Sculpture at UNESCO headquarters
Sculpture at UNESCO headquarters

UNESCO

Today in Sri Lanka, the government claims the 25-year-old war against the Tamil Tigers is finally winding down - an event any journalist would be eager to cover. But the government has refused to allow reporters access to the war zones, or to those areas where thousands have been stranded amid the shelling.

In times of upheaval, people's need for reliable information is especially great - their very survival may depend on it. "Whenever blood flows, reporters' ink should flow too," says IFEX member Reporters Without Borders (RSF), who is leading an international campaign demanding that journalists be allowed to move freely in Sri Lanka's conflict areas.

The demand is timely, as journalists and others from around the world converge in Doha, Qatar to celebrate UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day, whose theme this year is the potential of the media to foster dialogue, mutual understanding and reconciliation.

"Strengthening the principles and practices of a free and professional media is the most sustainable way of encouraging a media culture that works towards building peace," says UNESCO's Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura. "Only a media that is vibrant, independent, pluralistic, inclusive and fair, editorially free and beyond censorship and influence from owners or interests can contribute to dialogue and reconciliation across divides."

In light of this year's theme, the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize, awarded each year to an individual or organisation that demonstrates courage in defending free expression, is honouring a committed Sri Lankan journalist who opposed the war, Lasantha Wickrematunge.

Wickrematunge, the high profile leader of the Sri Lankan paper "The Sunday Leader", was on his way to work in Colombo on 8 January 2009, when he was attacked by a group of men on military-style motorbikes. He died several hours later.

Perhaps most remarkable about his assassination was that he predicted it: three days after the attack, "The Sunday Leader" published his final column. Wickrematunge talked about how much the press freedom situation had deteriorated in the past few years in the midst of a civil war. He condemned with equal fervour the army's occupation of Sri Lanka's north and east, and the Tamil Tigers the government is fighting. And he convincingly argued that when he would finally be killed, "it will be the government that kills (him)."

"Jury members were moved to an almost unanimous choice by a man who was clearly conscious of the dangers he faced but nevertheless chose to speak out, even beyond his grave," said the jury. "Lasantha Wickrematunge continues to inspire journalists around the world."

UNESCO points out that communicating across cultural differences is as crucial in peace times as it is in war. So during its two-day international conference in Doha, attendees will address the role that media can play in intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding by eradicating hate speech, ignorance and prejudices.

Media can not only serve to promote tolerance and acceptance of difference, says Matsuura, but can also strip away "the ignorance that breeds mistrust and suspicion," and challenge "prevailing attitudes and stereotypes about other cultures, religions and peoples."

Hot off the heels of a "defamation of religions" resolution at the Human Rights Council and lingering anger at the Danish cartoon controversy, the specific role of the media in promoting inter-religious dialogue and mutual understanding is an apt topic.

And how about the journalists themselves? The need for self-regulation and high ethical standards, particularly during times of conflict, will also be at the heart of the dialogue. The Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA), for example, is using this World Press Freedom Day to call on the media in embattled Zimbabwe and Zambia to set up self-regulatory mechanisms. "Such efforts... are not meant to shield the media from criticism or infringe on editorial independence, but in fact enhance the interaction of the media with its public as well as enhance media professionalism," argues MISA.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day 2009, this year's theme of media, dialogue and mutual understanding aptly captures the ideal situation that many in the media yearn for and are working toward. In Sri Lanka, IFEX members continue to demand that the media be allowed to provide that vital space in which opposing views can be aired and dialogue can get started - a crucial foundation for reconciliation and reconstruction. Matsuura reminds us that "a free press is not a luxury that can wait until more peaceful times. It is, rather, part of the very process through which they may be achieved."

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