Inaugural address at the Capacity Building Workshop for Women Journalists, Colombo (Sri Lanka), 26- 27 February 2020

by Eric Falt, Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka 

Distinguished speakers, ladies and gentlemen

I welcome you all to this wonderful gathering. Most of you present here today, work tirelessly at the forefront of policy and practice to ensure a free and fair media in Sri Lanka, my heartfelt gratitude for your bravery and resilience in what can be called testing times for media in the country. 

We are as good as our partners who play a crucial role in implementation of any project; I take this opportunity to thank Mr Kumar Nadesan, Chairman of Sri Lanka Press Institute and Mr Kumar Lopez, CEO, Sri Lanka Press Institute for standing with us in shaping today’s workshop.

Freedom of expression, enshrined in the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a cornerstone of democratic society. It is both a fundamental right on its own and an enabler of all other rights. A free, independent and pluralistic media, working in safe conditions, can serve as a watchdog for democracy, ensuring the free flow of information and the exercise of the public’s right to information. However, you are all aware of challenges faced by the media today. 

Years of study by the UNESCO and its partner organizations, have shown with empirical data that the South Asia remains to be a difficult region for media professionals. The risk is indisputably higher if you are a woman in media. Between May 2017 and April 2018, this region saw 35 journalists killed, one journalist abducted, almost 70 jailed or detained, over 40 attacked, 15 threatened, and nearly 100 occurrences of Internet shutdowns. In Sri Lanka alone, 17 journalists (among them three women) have reportedly been killed in last two decades, according to Committee to Protect Journalists. 

The situation is more crucial for women, who do not only face threats of violence in the line of work but are also prone to gender-specific safety risks such as sexual harassment, sexual violence and threats. Recent studies have shown that they are, in particular, targeted in the online space as well. 
In a report published in 2018 by Trollbusters and the International Women’s Media Foundation, a survey conducted among 597 women journalists and media workers revealed that nearly two out of three respondents stated that they had been threatened or harassed online at least once. Among them, around 40 per cent said they avoided reporting certain stories because of online harassment. 58 per cent of the women journalists surveyed stated that they already been threatened or harassed in person, while 26 per cent indicated that they had been physically attacked.

Clearly, much still needs to be done to ensure the safety of journalists, women journalists in particular, and to end impunity from crimes against journalists. As Target 16.10 of the Sustainable Development Goals urges us to do, we must make every effort to ‘Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms’. 

Safety of women journalists has been identified by the United Nations and its thematic agencies as an issue that requires attention globally. We, at UNESCO believe that gender equality in the media sector is a critical precondition for press freedom. Women journalists in South Asia are no longer willing to accept workplace harassment or discrimination thanks to the media’s powerful #MeToo movement that had last year swept the region, and the aftereffects can still be felt.

This workshop is a step towards enabling and promoting safety of women journalists. Over these two days, meticulously designed sessions will try and engage with women in media on a range of safety issues—both online and offline spaces. We will talk about the contours of current media climate in the country and its impact on women in the profession, work ethics, legal framework for women’s employment and safety. This is also a platform where we can exchange ideas, build trust and brainstorm on possible solutions towards improving the representation women in media and in the newsroom.

Tomorrow, we will also have workshops on trauma and stress management for our woman colleagues, and on digital safety and security.

These workshops are a true testimony of UNESCO’s commitment to promote the capacity development of information practitioners, most importantly, women media practitioners who are at the center of our development narrative. It will also contribute to the 2030 Agenda, and particularly Goal 5 addressing the global resolve of ‘eliminating violence against women journalists’ and ‘ensuring women’s participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life’.

Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, 

let us work together to ensure that no one is left behind. On behalf of the UNESCO, I welcome you to this two-day capacity-building workshop on ‘Promoting the Safety of Women Journalists’, and I thank very warmly once again the Government of Sri Lanka, our partners Sri Lanka Press Institute, and the truly amazing women journalists present here.

Thank You!