Ranil’s comments on the media raise eyebrows

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(Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last week accused that several Sinhala language newspapers are attempting to create communal disharmony ) (Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last week accused that several Sinhala language newspapers are attempting to create communal disharmony )

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last week, raised eyebrows by publicly accusing several Sinhala language newspapers of being in the payroll of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and attempting to create communal disharmony. Stating that he would be calling a meeting of media heads and their owners to discuss the situation, Wickremesinghe went onto say that he would ‘see to it’ if any of those he invites did not turn up and called on the public to conduct ‘occupy’ style protests at the offices of any newspapers that he defines as being engaged in promoting racism and communal disharmony.

Wickremesinghe’s ‘threats’ raise serious questions whether the government is going down the same path that it accused the previous one of doing. However, when contacted, several activists from prominent media rights organizations contended that stirring up racism is a problem within the country’s media, although they were not in universal agreement with the way the Prime Minister articulated those

General Secretary of the Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions, Dharmasiri Lankapeli acknowledged unethical media practices such as inciting racism was a problem within the country’s media. “However, I don’t believe interference by the State is the best way to tackle the problem. The struggle must be waged by the media industry within itself,” he said.

Political agendas
Lankapeli said Wickremesinghe’s comment that he ‘will see to it’ if media owners did not attend the meeting he is planning to call was ‘inappropriate and not what you expect in a new media culture that tolerates different viewpoints’.

“During previous years, some media institutions, especially the State controlled media, behaved in a disgraceful manner, singling out activists who held views contrary to that of the government. Even their families weren’t off limits. It is also true that some of the private media institutions that the Prime Minister mentioned violated media ethics in a similar manner. But, this is supposed to be a new era and we do not wish to see a situation where a government takes things to another extreme”.

Convener of the Free Media Movement (FMM) Sunil Jayasekara, however, said he did not see Wickremesinghe’s speech as a threat to media freedom. “In fact, I believe the threat to journalism comes from the industry itself due to the practice of unethical journalism,” he told The Nation.

Revival of fears
Jayasekara said the problem had arisen due to the practice of media organization taking political stances as a way to obtain economic benefits from those in power. “While there is no question that private media organizations cannot survive without a focus on profits, we have seen blatant violations of media ethics because some media institutions have adopted a clear political agenda. Fomenting fears of an LTTE revival and inciting communal hatred is one part of this,” he said.

Jayasekara said in such a situation, it was not wrong to have a dialogue between concerned parties because this was a major problem. He said journalists also bore a large amount of responsibility for the war as they played a big hand in inciting racial hatreds.
When queried whether it was only Sinhala language media that was inciting racism, Jayasekara replied in the negative. “The Sinhala and Tamil language media were largely divided along racial lines during the period of the war. We must remember there was a time where Tamil journalists actually applauded when LTTE Leader Prabhakaran was speaking at a media briefing in the North. I am against all forms of racism”.

Non-existent demons
President of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) Lasantha Ruhunage pointed out the Prime Minister’s comments had been made on the public stage. “At least that is a change from the previous era where journalists and media organizations were hounded behind the scenes through phone calls and other methods.”

Ruhunage accused some media organizations trying to show non-existent demons among the public after the end of war that lasted several decades. “As such, I believe it is important to have a constructive dialogue regarding this for the good of the country,” he added.

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