Any journalist worth his salt knows only too well, the media is the darling of politicians only when they are out of power. When in power, unless one is absolutely willing to toe their line, journalists soon becomefoes from being friends.
Hence, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe‘s outburst against journalists and several media organisations is not something to be surprised about, as the honeymoon between a new government in power and the media is almost always short lived.
Of course, for those who had great expectations that the new yahapalanaya government would usher in an era when media personnel can have their say without getting thrashed by politicians, it is no doubt cause for great disappointment.
The Prime Minister’s remarks against media personnel on Thursday came during an adjournment debate moved by the JVP on the “Conduct of the Police in the recent past”. While many were expecting to hear more about the recent high profile crime cases including the Seya murder case and the death of a young man at Embilipitiya, in which the Police acted in a highly questionable manner, what followed was a lot of media bashing. The Prime Minister turned his guns on the media, accusing them of going on a witch-hunt against the police, referring in particular to the cases where the notebook of a reporter was forcibly taken away by police, while court hearings into the Embilipitiya case were under way.
The Prime Minister was irked that media groups and journalists have been selective in reporting on attacks on their colleagues and organisations during the former regime. “We do not need a media that applauds the Embilipitiya court and goes on a hunt at Homagama court. Have you been able to write a single editorial on what happened at Homagama court? What is your position with regard to Homagama incident? Do you approve the manner in which Eknaligoda’s wife was spoken to at court? We know you are trying to stir up racism. We will not allow that,” the Prime Minister said.
Referring to one journalist as a toad and another as a “Riri yaka”, the Prime Minister accused them of having dirt on their hands.
The following day in Parliament, he once again took a dig at certain media personnel who he said were adherents of the “Maha Brahma”, who is now no longer in power. “The Brahmin class in media was created by a Maha Brahma who is no longer in power. That Brahmin class used to dine and drink with the Maha Brahma. The so-called Brahmin class has become outcastes (vasala),” he said.
Taking cue from the Prime Minister, several other UNP MPs too questioned the role of some media personnel, and also expressed concerns regarding misreporting of news, making it amply clear that the love-hate relationship that exists between politicians and the media will continue, maybe even with more intensity in the months ahead, as the Government grapples with implementing the UNHRC resolution and sets sights on drawing up a new Constitution.
However, this week in Parliament, too much focus on the media by the Prime Minister, during Thursday’s debate which was related to the conduct of Police personnel, resulted in many of the important facts brought to light by JVP leader and Chief Opposition Whip Anura Dissanayaka, about both the shortcomings within the Police Department, as well as the hardships faced by Police personnel and the deterioration of standards, being completely overshadowed.
MP Dissanayaka who introduced the motion, spoke at length about the ills that plague the Police Dept, with poor salaries, stagnation in the same ranks for many years, long working hours and callous attitude of officialdom towards lower rankers, all contributing to the growing frustration among police personnel.
“Today we are facing a situation where the Dept. that is entrusted with maintaining Law and Order is regularly facing charges of breaking the law,” the JVP leader said. Minister of Urban Planning and Water Supply Rauff Hakeem who participated in the debate said, the Government has introduced the 19th Amendment and, with the setting up of the National Police Commission, eminent persons have been appointed to look after the recruitment, promotions and transfers of police officers. “Politicisation of the police force is no more in this country, our government has seen to it that these matters be handled through the NPC” he said.
The Minister also recalled the unpleasant incidents under the previous regime, during which police were made to act like mere bystanders, instead of dealing with law breakers. “Some religious personalities, in front of large numbers of police personnel, conducted themselves in a manner so reprehensible that police personnel were subject to being bystanders. Then the previous Government proposed a religious police and in that way they created a culture of impunity,” he charged.
Minister of Law and Order Sagala Ratnayaka said the Ministry has recommended a 40% salary increase for Police personnel starting this year, and another 40% to be paid from next year. “However, the increased salaries have not been paid in January as the Treasury is yet to release the money,” he added.
FMM deplores PM’s attack on media
The Free Media Movement (FMM), in a statement, expressed its strong displeasure at the speech made by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesighe in Parliament on January 28, targeting individual journalists and media organizations, and said such behavior was unbecoming for a person holding such high office.
The Prime Minister has spoken in a threatening manner about media personnel. He has no right to tell editors on what subjects they should base their editorials. By this kind of behaviour, the Prime Minister of the country will not be able to win anything,” the FMM said in the statement.
It added that the FMM has been critical of the behaviour of Galabodaatte Gnansara Thera inside the Homagama Court, as much as it has condemned the incident at the Embilipitiya court, where the notes of journalists covering the case involving the death of a young man, were snatched away by Police.
The FMM said that it was important to cover not only the Prageetha Eknaligoda disappearance case, but also other murders, abductions and large scale fraud that had taken place under the previous regime. It is also important that the reporting be done in a manner so as not to create tensions between people of different races and religions.“If there are issues regarding the manner in which such stories are reported, they should be discussed with the members of the media and resolved, but not by threatening them,” the FMM said.