Thursday, May 7, 2009

UNESCO marking World Press Freedom Day.

At a ceremony in Doha, Qatar, on May 4, UNESCO awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize posthumously to Lasantha Wickrematunge, a Sri Lankan journalist and editor killed by a death squad on January 8.

The award was received, on behalf of Wickrematunge's widow (herself also a journalist), by her niece, who read a wonderful statement from her aunt.

Before he was killed,
Wickrematunge penned a powerful statement that, he decided, should be published by the paper he edited, Colombo's Sunday Leader, in the all-too-possible event of his assassination.

In the statement, Wickrematunge wrote,

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic... well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you'd best stop buying this paper.
The ceremony at which the award was made to Wickrematunge was hosted by the Doha Center for Media Freedom (DCMF), with support from the office of Sheikhah Mozah bint Nasser al-Mussned, the wife of Qatar's ruler.

The award served as a powerful reminder not only of the special dangers that journalists and bloggers face in many countries today, but also of the inhumane nature of the civil war in Sri Lanka. That war continues to this day, but receives woefully little coverage in the main western media.

For a day and a half prior to the award ceremony, UNESCO and the DCMF hosted a broad symposium at which participants discussed how to balance freedom of expression with freedom of religion, and other topics.

One participant was Allister Sparks, a veteran South African journalist who in the apartheid era broke the powerful taboos (and laws) against having any direct dealings with the African National Congress. He spoke out powerfully against the wide taboo (and laws) by which many western countries currently seek to silence and quarantine Hamas and Hizbullah.

You can see an acount of a discussion I had with Sparks about Hamas, here.

Also participating was Flemming Rose, the Danish editor whose September 2005 decision to solicit and publish a collection of cartooned representations of the Prophet Muhammed sparked a storm of protest in several parts of the Muslim world. In many of those countries, nervous regimes responded to the protests with live fire, and some tens of demonstrators were killed.

Rosse gave me an interesting description of the reason he decided to solicit and publish the cartoons. He said it was to "test" the proposition that Danish graphic artists felt a wide degree of self-censorship that prevented them from publishing such images. I put to him that there were several other ways he could have tested that proposition; and that anyway he must have known that their publication would cause offense to many people. I asked if he regretted the decision. Hedid not give a clear answer. I would like to discuss this ssue with him a lot more, if I get the chance.

My view is that "free speech fundamentalists" are like "market fundamentalists". Both groups of people believe that the sphere of their concern is somehow so special and important that it somehow exists outside the realm of normal human and social life, and its values should therefore always over-ride any broader social concerns.

In the case of the economic "market", it is clear that all markets are created by human communities and their governments, and operate according to rules established by those groups, to which participants in the markets must all, at the end of the day, be held accountable. Is the same not also true of discourse structures? How could we possibly say they exist outside of and independently of human communities and their (our) governments?

This is not, of course, to say that I don't value freedom of expression very highly indeed. I do. I am humbled and deeply inspired by the words, persistent actions, and deep values of a person like Lasantha Wickrematunge. But still, I don't think words-- any more than any other human-created instrument-- should be used in a way that knowingly causes harm to other people.

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