Journalists demonstrating for freedom of the press and against violence towards journalists in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo in January 2009.
Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Reuters/Scanpix
Independent press institute fights for freedom of expression
Sri Lanka comes bottom among democratic countries on Reporters Without Borders’ list of conditions regarding freedom of the press in the world. But that has not always been the case. Before the civil war, freedom of the press was good in Sri Lanka.
The civil war signalled the start of a decline in media standards. The media was in three languages; Tamil, Sinhala and English. They were all involved in the conflict and became increasingly politicized. Events were reported completely differently depending on which newspaper you read. In the end, even the newspaper owners and editors-in-chief lost interest.
Together, they decided that long-term change demanded a freer media and better trained journalists. They wanted to create an independent press institute.
Education leads to less biased reporting
There was an armistice at the beginning of this decade and the leading politicians were open to change. They agreed that the media would be self-regulating, instead of being controlled by the state, with a press ombudsman.
Sweden and Norway also joined as partners following a direct request from the Sri Lankan government, as did the Institute for Further Education of Journalists (Fojo).
Sri Lanka’s press institute, with press ombudsmen and training for journalists, was formed in 2004.
Johan Romare, project manager at Fojo, who worked for three years as a representative in Colombo, says: “The training used to be completely theoretical. If you were learning how to use the camera, the teacher showed an overhead picture of a camera and pointed to what the different buttons were for.”
Now, there is basic training in journalism and further training for journalists who are already working. Many of the students who have done the basic training have already achieved high positions, such as news directors.
Tough climate for journalism
Since 2005 and 2006, the climate for journalists has worsened. The conflict was accompanied by strong restrictions in the freedom of the press.
"The change of climate has meant that the situation has not turned out the way we’d hoped,” Romare says. “But it’s important that the institute exists, and that journalism in Sri Lanka has been made professional. The press institute has also been able to counteract some law changes that the government wanted to implement.”
As part of phasing out its support, Sweden has helped the press institute to buy its premises. This means it can reduce its future costs and increase its independence. Norway and Denmark will continue to support its operations and the co-operation with Fojo will also continue.