The chilling culture of brazen
The origins of the term ‘fourth
estate’- which usually refers to the media - are at best,
Some attribute the words to Thomas Carlyle who described the
clergy, the noblemen and the commoners as the ‘three estates’.
Others give credit to Edmund Burke who, looking up at the press
gallery of the House of Commons in Britain remarked, “yonder
sits the fourth estate and they are more important than them
However, the events of last Friday beg quite the opposite
question: Are they the least important of them all? And, in this
country, is there a ‘fifth estate’ which wields absolute,
The Associate Editor of this newspaper was brazenly abducted at
his doorstep as he returned home from work, brutally assaulted
by unknown persons and dumped by the roadside. And his crime? We
don’t exactly know why but there are very convincing reasons to
believe that it had everything to do with his occupation.
The attack, to put it mildly, was inhuman and barbaric; the
victim was at risk of serious head injuries with a potential
threat to his life. In a broader sense, it may have been a few
well aimed blows at one individual but it was also a body blow
to the fabric of civilised society in this country which seems
to be becoming increasingly threadbare by the day.
A cynic may say that the attack was perhaps timely: after all,
it was only a day earlier that Sri Lanka lost its seat at the
United Nations Human Rights Council. Yet, because this is not
the first attack on a journalist in recent times and because we
fear that it will not be the last, observations must be made and
questions must be asked.
We do not propose to discuss media freedom in this country which
has a chequered history. It suffices to say that governments of
different hues have been quite adept at suborning it to their
advantage. Newspaper companies have been taken over, others have
been sealed, press censorships have been imposed, editors have
been charged with criminal defamation and lately, threatening,
abducting and sometimes murdering journalists have become the
The fact remains that the Associate editor of a national
newspaper was abducted under the cover of darkness, threatened
and then mercilessly assaulted before being left to his own
devices. The perpetrators of this act would have known that the
victim being who he was, this would cause a national – if not
international - furore. Yet, they cared not a whit. Obviously,
they were confident that they could do what they did without
facing the consequences.
And the implications of that are chilling. It smacks of a
culture of impunity of immense proportions. And it would take
some convincing to make everyone else believe that this attack
was the act of a minion trying to score brownie points from his
master. Therefore, what the powers that be must realise is that
in the court of public opinion, they would be found guilty until
Defenders of the faith will argue that the culprits in this
incident could be anybody. No doubt, someone would float a
conspiracy theory claiming this was a plot by a non-governmental
organisation in cahoots with the opposition to discredit the
government! But what of the incidents where the culprits bashed
up media personnel for all to see on a live telecast from the
government’s own television station? The perpetrators of that
crime are not only still walking free; they are walking tall and
rubbing shoulders with the very high and mighty.
It is of relevance to note here that not so long ago, when
President Mahinda Rajapaksa was a frontline opposition
parliamentarian, he was at the forefront of agitating for and
behalf of media freedom, human rights and all the values that
they represents. With Rajapaksa himself now at the helm, the
media could have been pardoned for expecting good times.
As it often happens, what politicians propose when in the
opposition, they dispose of when in power. Sadly, this now seems
to be true of the Rajapaksa administration as well. That is not
to say that we are holding the President responsible for what
happened on Friday; yet at the same time we must remind the
President that in this system of executive government where he
wields all the powers, the buck stops with him, whether he likes
it or not.
Therefore, Mr. President, the onus is now on you to act. We know
you have asked for an inquiry into this particular incident but
then, you do that, ad nauseum and few people have confidence in
that kind of exercise, especially when inquiries into previous
incidents such as the one involving your ‘honourable’
non-cabinet Minister for Labour are in limbo.
What the country needs from you now is the political will to put
an end to this type of savagery. And that direction has to come
from you, not from your pathetic minister of mass media and
information or from your omnipotent doctor-minister of labour-
or even from your younger sibling the Defence Secretary.
This country does not need a ‘fifth estate’ that decides who
should live and who should die, who should be punished and who
should be rewarded, who should say what and what everyone else
should believe. The fourth estate is there to do its job and it
will-it does not need a ‘fifth estate’ telling them what to do.
And that is why, Mr. President, you would have to take steps to
stop the rot - and do so now.
After all, it is but a short step from the sublime to the
ridiculous - as it would be, from Mahinda to Mugabe.