The price of freedom

As we commemorate World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, violence is still being used to choke the voices

The editor of the Sunday Leader, a Sri Lankan newspaper, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles as he drove to work in January this year. Following numerous encounters with the government, Lasantha Wickramatunga knew that his life might soon be cut short by those who wished to silence him, yet he pursued and exposed the truth regardless. His death is a great loss for the world of serious journalism.

In the same week that Mr Wickramatunga was murdered, the facilities of the largest private broadcaster in Sri Lanka were bombed. At least 14 journalists have been killed and many more abducted or arrested since 2006, while others have been forced to leave the country.

Journalists in Sri Lanka have long suffered intimidation, and the escalation of the conflict between the government and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) has made it one of the most difficult countries in the world in which to report, as they come under pressure from all sides. In its 2008 press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Sri Lanka 165th out of 173 countries.

As a member of the European Parliament's South Asia delegation, I visited Sri Lanka last year where we met the wife of another reporter, J.S. Tissainayagam, an ethnic Tamil columnist with the Sunday Times newspaper and editor of the OutreachSL website, which has published many articles on the worsening human rights situation. Arrested by the police Terrorist Investigation division in March 2007, Mr Tassainayagam spent several months in detention before being charged under the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

He is still being held in prison, despite efforts by human rights groups to pressure the Sri Lankan government to drop the charges. In a letter to the Sri Lankan government, Human Rights Watch stated that "while international law permits some restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of national security, such restrictions may not be used to justify far-reaching restrictions on critics of the government."

On my return from Sri Lanka, I called on the European Parliament's President, Council and Commission to ensure that Mr Tissainayagam be allowed to meet his lawyers in private, which he had been prevented from doing, and that the evidence against him be fully disclosed. So far there has been no positive news on his case.

As well as detaining journalists on spurious grounds, some say that the government has encouraged violence against them by branding reporters as rebel sympathisers and enemies of the state. I have also heard that Mr Tissainayagam's wife and lawyers have received death threats.

Such treatment of journalists, and those closest to them, has led to a paralysis of the media community. Three trends were noted in a European Parliament resolution on Sri Lanka last month: lack of press access and independent information flow in the conflict zone, assaults on and intimidation of journalists covering the conflict, and self-censorship by the media.

This closing down of the press led to scant reporting of the intensification of the conflict, and the continued exclusion of journalists from the conflict zone means that an accurate and thorough assessment of the current situation is difficult to ascertain as we are hearing only claim and counter-claim.

Many thousands of citizens have now lost their lives and the lack of exposure has almost certainly contributed to a delayed and inadequate international response.

Containment of the press and risks to journalists are not, of course, confined to Sri Lanka. The CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) has compiled data on over 720 journalists who have been murdered worldwide since 1992 and a further 200 who have lost their lives operating in conflict zones and other dangerous situations.

In his final editorial, published days after his death, Wickramatunga criticised opposition parties for staying silent about the Sri Lankan government's wrong-doing, "that is why more journalists have been attacked in recent years than have opposition politicians," he said.

We must not lose sight of the fact that eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty. At a time when human rights and democratic development hang in the balance in so many countries, the media, politicians and citizens have a duty to recognise that we owe our security and democracy in large part to those fighting for and defending freedom of the press.

Jean Lambert is a Green Party Member of the European Parliament. She is one of nine MEPs representing London and one of two UK Green representatives in the European Parliament