Don’t silence dissenting voices

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has always been good friends with the media. He is both publicity savvy and possessed of a genial genetic make up. Ever approachable and ready to oblige, Rajapaksa has always been a favourite of the journalists, even if his policies, or the lack thereof were rarely agreed with by media circles at large. During the tenure of the previous President, so amazing was Rajapaksa’s relationship with media personnel that Chandrika Kumaratunga once called him the ‘cabinet reporter’ since it was allegedly through this lieutenant that all her Cabinet secrets reached the ears of media men.
But of course, it is a truth, universally acknowledged that politicians only speak of press freedom and freedom of expression while in opposition; the modern examples of this have been glaring – Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe and of course, now, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
All the camaraderie and lofty ideals are ancient history now of course. The Rajapaksa administration may keep up appearances about its commitment to a free media and the President may still smile a great deal, but the truth is staring us all blankly in the face.
In the fog of war, many things have been hidden, lost, tread upon. As former President J.R. Jayewardene once said at a gathering of judicial officers quoting Cicero ‘in the face of arms, the law falls mute.’ In the face of arms, civil liberties also take a beating. Naturally therefore, a cry for ‘freedom’ has gone up from all quarters. The army vows to ‘free’ civilians from the Tiger yoke, the innumerable slogan-toting anti-terror groups that call for ‘freedom’ from terrorism while manufacturing a particular brand of terror and intimidation themselves, and of course in an era of increasing threat and intimidation, the media cries out for its own pound of flesh.
The media, the government defence spokesman says, should refrain from criticising the administration and the armed forces since we are at war. In other words, the defence spokesman was prescribing a virtual censorship on war reportage. On the other hand, war is being waged against a private newspaper group for refusing to maintain a pro-government stance.
Today, under the ‘terrorist’ mantram a journalist and financial officer of this publishing group have been arrested and by all accounts, the newspaper’s accounts have been frozen. It is true that this is the same publishing house with affiliations to a certain government minister of the time that unreservedly threw its weight behind the current President when he was contesting office. It is also proclaimed that this is the same publishing house that was set up with the explicit purpose of making the President’s journey to the highest office of the land smoother. And yet, no sooner did the newspaper turn its back on the President its owners fall out of favour and the government commenced what can only be called a witch-hunt, making arbitrary arrests and resorting to name-calling – all of which is tantamount to harassment of the media.
To be sure, none of us can hold a brief for institutions that may or may not be involved in financial wrongdoing. Nor can we condone taking cover under the banner ‘media freedom’ to engage in anti-social or irresponsible activities, for with freedom comes responsibility and of this truth we must be ever-cautious.
We can however, stand firm in support of a newspaper’s freedom of expression. We can stand against the use of the anti-terror laws to silence dissenting voices. We can stand against corruption in public office that is only dealt with if and when the offenders irk the current administration. We can demand liberties that are part of the territory in a thriving democracy.
Indeed, we demand freedom. And in a country where the opposition has all but lost its voice and refuses to take the current administration to task on its misdeeds, the media has a bigger-than-ever role to play. We demand the right to critique as we please, put the actions of public officials under the microscope and we demand not to be penalised for it. We are bound by all that is sacred in our profession, to tell the truth, notwithstanding the risks of falling out of favour, being threatened and intimidated and in some cases, paying the supreme price for wielding the only weapons in our possession – our pens – truthfully. Shall we compromise our freedom for temporary security? The best of us shall not, and the best of us shall therefore prevail. There is a subtle martyrdom in doing our jobs truthfully; so while political leaders will wield the powers bestowed upon them during their terms in office and then descend into oblivion, we shall be immortalised. To the administrations of the day, we the free press say, ‘bring out your big guns’; we shall overcome.
Dwight D. Eisenhower:
“We seek peace, knowing that peace is the climate of freedom.”
Henry David Thoreau:
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Benjamin Franklin:
“They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.”
Clarence Darrow:
“You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free.”
Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero-Worship:
“Edmond Burke said, there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
Arthur Miller:
“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.”