The chilling culture of brazen impunity!

The origins of the term ‘fourth estate’- which usually refers to the media - are at best, ambiguous.
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 all.”

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, God-like power?

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 trend.

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 proven otherwise.

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.