Editorial Comment Freedom of expression and fundamental rights

From Fourth Estate to a real Vox Populi?   

Lakshman Gunasekara

World Press Freedom Day  

When in December 1995, the United Nations General Assembly resolved that the UN member nations should celebrate ‘World Press Freedom Day’ annually every May 3, the world was still enveloped in a massively centralised industry of corporate news business. The cyber revolution was yet to come. 

May 3rd 1991 was the day that a gathering of senior African journalists held in Windhoek, Namibia, adopted a declaration calling on all African governments, citizens and News industries to respect and enhance the service to society provided by the media. That first such UN-hosted continental gathering subsequently inspired the UN Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to convene similar consultations in the other major regions of the world – Asia, Europe, West Asia, the Americas. All of them adopted similarly strong ‘declarations’ that defined journalism’s and the News media’s contribution to humanity’s progress and global peace.    

In the 1990s, the world still enjoyed the stability and institutional strength of a News industry that, some two centuries earlier, was already being recognised as performing a highly influential political role with European politicians of the time dubbing the Press as the ‘Fourth Estate’. This referenced the powerful institutions, or ‘estates’, of the feudal State, comprising the church, the nobility and the economic guilds. 

In the ensuing modern era, the News industry became a vastly powerful institution primarily defined by its economic capacities and centralised ownership. But, under the impulse of liberal democracy, the industry also evolved into an ethically moulded, skills-based, Journalist profession whose practitioners have adorned society’s endeavours with their creative energies and sustained commitment to informing their publics. Many are the journalists who have won world and national recognition for their achievements. 

Many, too, have been the journalists who have given their lives or otherwise suffered in determined fulfilment of their professional duties – among our own being Wimal Surendra, Lasantha Wickramatunge and Dharmaratnam Sivaram. Two Sri Lankan women communicators who sacrificed their lives were writer-scholar Rajani Rajasingham-Tiranagama and radio/TV announcer Shobana Dharmaraja.           

Today, humanity thrives on a communications revolution that has fully upturned the entire structure of inter-personal and mass communication. That concentration of ownership and the centralised, one-way vertical form of messaging that dominated society as the ‘Fourth Estate’ now crumbles. Digital technology and high speed mass circulation via the Internet enables people to make and disseminate their own messaging independent of big business-owned enterprises or government.  ‘Vox populi’ has a more profound meaning than ever before.    

People-to-people messaging gives an immense horizontal communicational power to individual voices. New, very large, businesses profit from the Internet and its unimaginably vast streams of communications not yet managed in socially constructive ways. Sri Lanka right now is experiencing the power of this horizontal mass mobilisation. 

Technology enables whole systems penetrate deeply into human intercourse breaking down barriers of privacy and exploiting human identities, emotions and relationships far beyond the control of individual citizens. Disinformation and surveillance have become powerful, oppressive, systems.  

On 2-5 May 2022, UNESCO and the Republic of Uruguay will host the annual World Press Freedom Day Global Conference. Under the theme “Journalism under Digital Siege”, the digital era’s impact on freedom of expression, the safety of journalists, access to information and privacy will be discussed. 

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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