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On Sri Lanka journalism... And new media reforms

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Richard de Zoysa Richard de Zoysa

Twenty five years ago this month we fled Sri Lanka. We have since returned intermittently, to live and work there, and on vacation.

We fled days after the bullet-riddled body of our good friend and colleague, Richard de Zoysa was found.Richard worked for the Interpress Service (IPS) at the time, and was due to take up a position abroad for the Agency. That was not to be. Members of a goon squad directly connected to the police of the Ranasinghe Premadasa government snuffed out his illustrious life; a month short of his 32nd birthday.

The 1980s were days of darkness and despair in Sri Lanka. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and its off-shoot, the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya were holding the South to ransom. In the North and East the LTTE were fighting government troops. Death squads were everywhere. Richard was taken away from his home in the wee hours. There has never been any clear evidence for the reason for his abduction and killing.. The fear psychosis that was applied was good enough in our case; we sought refuge outside the country to protect our three little children.

Richard was amongst the last to be killed in that era and his death brought some sort of end to the threats against journalists. One of the first to die was  Wimal S Surendra. There were many other media practitioners who were murdered during that period. They included stellar names such as Thevis Guruge, Premakeerthi de Alwis and Kulasiri Amarasekara

Media professionals in Sri Lanka have been targeted by many governments that have been in power since the independence, who sought various means of censure. There was a time during the JR Jayewardene era when news stories and opinion columns had to be rushed to the government censor who would comb through the articles before permitting publication The Mahinda Rajapaksa era saw the return of the worst forms of harassment of media professionals. Journalists both in the South and the North carried out their work under a great deal of pressure.

Using patriotism as a tool – surely the refuge of the scoundrel - the government had its own “journalist” lackeys to label any critics and those whose reports they disliked as traitors. Editors and News Directors were threatened by members of the military. Journalists who fell foul of the government were named and shamed on government media outlets, and some were even hauled up before the Defence Secretary and warned of dire repercussions if they did not toe the line. State media labelled them – among whom was Lasantha Wickrematunga and Poddala Jayantha – as traitors and supporters of the LTTE clearly putting them and their families at risk. Only the government’s brand of nationalism and patriotism was allowed. Journalists were assaulted and abducted in full view of the public.

Richard’s killing, like Lasantha’s shook the nation to the core simply because they were well-known media men who hailed from the upper echelons of society. Yet scores of lesser knows media men and women have paid heavily for having the courage to carry out their work in a professional manner. Prageeth Ekneligoda’s family still awaits; he was abducted in January 2010 and has not been heard of since. 

The largest number of journalists  has fled the country during the last five years.

The newly-elected government of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickramasinghe campaigned on a platform of reform, including the media. The Right to Information Act is due to be introduced shortly. 

One of the recommendations of the short- term proposal submitted to the new government by the Free Media Movement is to “Restore state-controlled media as Public service media institutes and establish an independent media commission that is accountable to the Parliament to carry out appointments and other relevant matters. Ensure the independence of the state media from political interest and make its code of ethics known to the public.”

Richard, Lasantha, and many other journalists paid with their lives to uphold democracy. Prageeth’s fate is unknown.

The media reforms that the government has promised bodes well for the preservation of democracy, but only time will tell whether the new regime would stick to its promises.

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