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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

If the Premier Cares About Media Freedom, Here is Something He Can Do

Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe has criticized the media over its conduct during the Rajapaksa regime. In other words, is blaming the victim for the rape. At the Thai Pongal festival in Jaffna, he accused the media of ‘going shopping’ for the infamous 18th Amendment and warned the media not to spoil the ongoing constitutional process. There is little evidence that the media, save the State-owned ones supported the 18A. Perhaps, the Sinhala media which caters to the largest segment of the audience could have been a little more aggressive. But, that could well have got a few more journalists white-vanned.
The difference between Mr. Wickremesinghe and the majority of journalists who disliked the former regime is that unlike the latter who as the then Opposition Leader enjoyed the

protection from the excesses of the State, journalists did not have immunity from intimidation, abduction and state-orchestrated arbitrary sackings.

Journalism under the Rajapaksa regime was a Kafkaesque nightmare; with the omnipresent danger sugar-coated with Rajapaksa charm and hearty hopper meals he shared with newspaper editors. Mr. Rajapaksa, who was largely tolerant of media scrutiny, used to tell  reporters, to criticize him, but not his younger brother Gotabaya and the first family. Poddala Jayantha, the former president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association was abducted while journalists were meeting President Rajapaksa to discuss Poddala Jayantha’s security concerns.  President Rajapaksa himself did not know for sure, in a fit of anger over an unfavourable coverage,  what he would do to the offending journalist or the  media institution. Even the most daring of journalists who wanted to have a go at the former regime were restrained, at times, by the owners or the editors who were bought over by the regime. Those who refused to toe the line were intimidated and some were compelled to sell their media assets. Others went on the back foot, fearing repercussions. Most of the new crop of owners who joined the industry during the Rajapaksa regime were  cronies and proxys of the regime. They had no qualms about sacking journalists at the behest of the regime and tone down negative coverage. On the other hand, Mr. Wickremesinghe could do little to protect persecuted journalists or to confront the authoritarianism of the former regime instead, he expected the media to topple the regime. That is not Mr. Wickremesinghe’s fault. Rather it is microscopic of the overwhelming hopelessness at the time of many millions, being subjugated by an omnipotent elected dictatorship. Ultimately Maithripala Sirisena defected from the regime, and ran for the presidency, as he says, at the risk of his life and those of his family. Mr. Wickremesinghe, to his credit supported the common opposition candidate, who defeated the once invincible Rajapaksa.

For many Sri Lankans, who were let down by Prof. G.L. Peiris’ intellectual dishonesty, his ramblings are yesterday’s garbage. However, when he speaks for the Rajapaksa loyalists, it is still news. The ex-president still commands considerable support among some segments of the Sinhala population and the media has a legitimate duty to report what the representatives of those people are saying. Depriving them of their legitimate right of expression is censorship.  When a significant section of the masses are deprived of their voice, they may opt to other forms of expressions (like drawing ultra nationalist graffiti on the walls of Muslim houses). And as we witnessed during the height of the JVP mayhem, dissatisfied groups who have been denied a voice could explode in pretty nasty ways.
“One way to do that is to liberate the State media from its current rot and install an organizational structure that is conducive to independent journalism”

If Mr. Wickremesinghe truly cares about media freedom, there is quite a lot he can do beginning with the State media.

Cynics, many of whom are unabashed apologists of the former regime, say the new government is aping the West. That is still better than aping Mugabe, Gaddafi, Hugo Chavez and other tin-pot dictators, like the former regime did.

However, if it really cares about media freedom it can transform state-owned or controlled electronic and print media in this country into a truly independent public service media under a governing structure similar to the BBC.  The State media in this country have, for too long, been operating under the mercy of the politicians in power. That has not changed under the new government. The new editors and journalists, no matter how forthright they are, cannot change that insalubrious status quo, which is rotten to the core. They will, unfortunately though,  in time, become victims of the system, like it happened under the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration, which took office on the top of a popular campaign, in part mobilized by the then Free Media Movement. It appointed some of the best and most active journalists to editorial positions in Lake House. However, many of them, who came from independent media backgrounds, could not survive in the political meddling of the State, and were soon eclipsed by stooges.

At the end, Sri Lankan journalism lost some of its greatest, like the late Ajith Samaranayake and the country was deprived of the services of some of the its most accomplished journalists.

Given its record of taking over media houses and shutting down others, the SLFP is more prone to abusing the State media to extremes. However, there is no guarantee that the UNP would not do the same. The main reason for restraint is that it is in the early days of its government.

The existing structure of the State media institutions is a recipe for abuse. And there is some veritable bunkum presented as the logic of the government having media institutions of its own. One is that the government needs the state media to drive its message to the public, since the private media would not do that to a satisfactory level. Those who witnessed the conduct of the State media in the past know well that they did nothing of that sort, unless one mistakes soft phonographic filth in morning talk shows on State radio as a kind of public education. Nor can State-owned or controlled media in any part of the world deliver on those objectives. They are restrained by their governing structure turning them into unapologetic mouthpieces of their respective governments.

The only way to salvage the State media is to change its governing structure and bring them under an independent body that serves as a bulwark against political meddling. However, successive governments have shown little inclination to let the media out of its control. The Chandrika Kumaratunga administration which accepted the JVP proposal for five independent commissions rejected a sixth on an independent media commission.  Mr. Rajapaksa had no such misgivings and his regime defeated a bill for the Right for Information in Parliament, becoming the first elected government in the world to do so.
Mr. Wickremesinghe who flaunts his political liberalism, can show that he actually lives by those liberal values. One way to do that is to liberate the State media from its current rot and install an organizational structure that is conducive to independent journalism.

Follow RangaJayasuriya @RangaJayasuriya on twitter



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