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 forces.
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 publication.
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 government website.

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 other paramilitaries.

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 national issue.

“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.