A giant leap backwards

The news of a cabinet memorandum regarding the re-enactment of the Criminal Defamation Law being submitted for approval at last week’s cabinet meeting sent shockwaves through the media community, not least because it would appear to be one of the most imprudent and regressive measures adopted by this administration in the recent past.

Consider this: very rarely does a government of Sri Lanka leave behind a legacy having done good things for the country. Most administrations leave behind a bad taste in the mouth and our collective memory is littered with instances when our elected representatives have failed us, exploited us and ultimately disappointed us. This is why it is such a rarity to stumble upon some minute nugget – some small piece of legislation or moment in time to console ourselves and make us feel that trekking to the polling booth to cast a ballot on that last election day was not entirely without benefit.

For those of us in the media, this little nugget proved to be the repealing of the Criminal Defamation Law in 2004.
The archaic penal legislation, which carried with it a jail term for offenders, hung over the heads of all scribes like the proverbial sword of Damocles for the longest time. It had been roundly condemned from all quarters over the years as being a tool used by countless politicians to muzzle media personnel and ensure they would toe the line. Needless to say, few of them did – journalists are not easily swayed and rarely does even the prospect of doing prison time deter the scribe whose pen is honest and commitment to the dissemination of information paramount. Standing testimony to this creed is that several journalists holding positions as chief editors in national newspapers today, have records of suspended prison sentences.

This fact holds something to be proud of: obviously refusing to back down even when threatened with incarceration has been a Sri Lankan journalistic tradition. But it is also tragic that one of the oldest democracies in the world saw it fit, for the longest time, to criminalise the Fourth Estate for simply doing its job.

For many years to come therefore, the journalistic community will be grateful to the Ranil Wickremesinghe Administration of 2001-2004. Wickremesinghe’s love-hate relationship with the media hit a definite high when he chose to give into the media lobby and de-criminalise defamation laws. Since then Wickremesinghe has been accused of manipulating the media, censuring it and being far too elusive – something most unbecoming of the Leader of the Opposition. All this does not change the fact that his was a great service in terms of loosing any government’s stranglehold on journalists – defamation is now a civil offence and publishers and scribes would only be liable to pay compensation or damages to the aggrieved party, as per the determination of the court of law. Naturally, the civil nature of the law does not please politicians in the least, since with the decriminalisation of the law, countless opportunities to conduct witch-hunts and target scribes and newspapers, all went awry. The repeal of the law also meant that journalists could now ‘name and shame’ politicians in office, with little fear of reprisal, especially if the necessary documentation and facts were in order.

All this was about to be reversed when President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet of ministers met last Wednesday. A dubious cabinet paper, ‘submitted’ by the non-cabinet Justice Minister Dilan Perera who claims he knew nothing of its contents was taken up for debate at least week’s meeting. Fortunately, sanity prevailed somewhere down the line, and the cabinet, stonily silent on so many matters relevant to the country and apt to sign on any memorandum regardless of its controversy or blatant irregularity these days, stoically opposed the re-enactment of the legislation. The heavy opposition from among its ranks, forced the administration’s ‘powers that be’ to abandon the move for the time being – but for how long, is the question on all our minds.

To begin with, it is necessary to determine the rationale for re-enacting this kind of Draconian legislation at this juncture. Sri Lanka has earned the dubious reputation for being the world’s second most unsafe place for journalists – next to Iraq. Almost every week, journalists, whose government issued identification is being rejected, are being assaulted and hospitalised. For the first time in the history of the internet phenomenon in Sri Lanka, the government has imposed a censorship – a censorship that would only insinuate that it gives credence to a website that is well known for its pro-Tiger stance.

The government is openly hostile to certain organisations and journalists, and threats, intimidation and cries of ‘traitor’ abound when the administration is taken to task by the media. And now, this.

There can be only one reason for this latest move to muzzle the media. The government recognises the power of the press. They realise that without a free press, dissenters would be left without voice, government corruption and dirty linen would remain in the closet and the administration can have a free hand in yanking this country further down the path to destruction. To such misguided administrations, a free press can say only one thing. All over the world, journalists have prevailed worse situations. In this age of information, a state can only dream of truly fettering a media. We will find an outlet, our voices shall be heard and because, as Malcolm X said, we, the media control the minds of the masses, the power of the people shall be ours. Congratulations to the government on letting the matter rest for the time being. Perhaps it is indication that all good sense has not been abandoned yet. Let’s keep it that way, shall we?