|Media in Strait Jacket
The internationally accepted media watchdog, Reporters Sans
Frontiers (RSF), this week, released its rankings of countries
in terms of press freedom, for 2007. Sri Lanka has been placed
13th but, the last in a total of 169 countries listed.
Sri Lankans should hang their collective heads in shame, as the
country has been ranked 156th just above Iraq, Palestine,
Somalia and Uzbekistan. Of course, the saving grace is that RSF
places Sri Lanka in the category of a country at war.
China, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Turkmenistan and North Korea, the
countries most despised by the ‘international community,’ follow
in the list that ends with Eritrea.
Post independent Sri Lanka, since the 70s, has witnessed an
erosion of media freedom coupled with a state of emergency that
has run for more than 20 years during two southern insurrections
and a separatist war.
In fairness to this administration, it must be said that during
the prosecution of the war over the past 14 months, a media
censorship was not slapped. Though there has not been censorship
in the formal meaning of the word, with a competent authority
appointed to scrutinize articles and pages, draconian emergency
regulations imposed on the country during this regime, have been
a fetter on media freedom.
However, the biggest impediment to the media is the constant
refrain by key ministers and officials that, anyone with a
different view to that of the government, on the prosecution of
the war, was deemed a Tiger and a traitor to the security
Such a person would come under surveillance and possibly dealt
under emergency. That, patriotism has been equated to the last
refuge of a scoundrel, is so true in this context.
This goes against the very grain of the Constitutionally
guaranteed freedom of speech and expression including
The government’s view on media freedom, as posted on its
websites, is quoted below:
“A free press or media could only flourish in a free society. In
today’s world, what threatens free society is terrorism,
irrespective of its root cause. Whether it stems from
communalism or religious extremism, terrorism is indeed a threat
to a free society and therefore, to the freedom of the media.”
While agreeing that terrorism, as practised by the LTTE, most
certainly, threatens free society. The pertinent question to ask
is whether terrorism practised by the State, military included,
and the paramilitaries working in conjunction with the security
forces, was not a threat to free society.
“Unfortunately, in our country, there are some self-appointed
free media champions, who do not seem to understand this.
Perchance, they do not want to, because promoting terrorism may
have become a lucrative business for them,” states the
RSF, in its report this year, has stated thus: “Belligerents
refuse to recognise journalists’ rights, and accuse them of
supporting the other side.” RSF could not have captured the
situation better, for journalists face the wrath, not only of
the government and the military but also, the Karuna faction and
The rhetoric against media freedom may be stated in editorial
after editorial but, a government or Tiger bent on stiffling the
media, would care less. We could either sit back, passively
watching the gravity-defying fall in media freedom or, take the
government and others head on, only in the interest of the
public, not for another political power waiting in the wings.
The opposition has always been the darling of the press, only
till it comes to power.
In an unprecedented manner, the chief opposition UNP leadership
has been attacking independent journalists and media
organizations to publish what the party dishes out, going
against the very grain of freedom of publication.
By far, the language press is the most affected, with
communalists on both sides of the divide and militants on
several sides, forcing their perverse views on what is a
“Publish and be damned” used to be the guiding principle of
editors then. Today, it is a question of publish and be damned
for eternity. This year, at least three Tamil journalists were
killed in the North and East, while one correspondent from the
war zone went missing. Journalists were interrogated and some
incarcerated in the course of duty.
Editors and journalists have been either threatened openly or in
a subtle way. But, the scribes have not and will not wilt under
pressure, as they know they are the watchdogs of the people.
While the government must ensure freedom to journalists, it must
be said again: With freedom comes responsibility.
So, we expect no more laws to put us under fetters. Sri Lanka
might end up losing a place in the long list of countries, if it
re-imposes criminal defamation legislation as contemplated.