[Media protest in Sri Lanka]
by Ranga Jayasuriya-
None of the predecessors of Mahinda Rajapaksa did anything substantial to uphold the independent media in the country. Country’s media have withered away under successive governments since Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s left-leaning United Front administration ‘nationalized’ the Lake House and effectively turned it into a mouthpiece of the government.
Subsequent leaders went further, helped by a succession of compliant editors, unleashing the state media on its political opponents, civil society and diplomats, in an unending series of sickening personal attacks and character assassinations. Chandrika Kuamratunga’s Media Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake, during her early years of the presidency, held some promise and wanted to broad base the ownership of Lake House, to transform it into a truly independent entity.
However, with his death, which was followed by the appointment of Mangala Samaraweera as media minister, the sojourn ended. Samaraweera took the state media to the extreme; not only did he destroy its last remnant of independence, he also eroded its financial viability (by appointing drones of his hacks to the Lake House). He made Lake House a disgusting place, now seeing his banter on media freedom; I am reminded of the cheapness of our time and our politics.
However, no one else has been more meticulous and coordinated in dismantling the free media in the country than Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent president. The first term of his presidency was marred by an all-out war and brute force unleashed against media. But, admittedly, many such instances happened beyond his control. Both his brother, powerful Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka were in direct control of the military and the other apparatus of security. Given President Rajapaksa’s political personality, it is hard to believe that assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the disappearance of Pradeep Ekneligoda, attacks on Sirasa, then Sunday Leader, and Uthayan happened with his knowledge. Some others in his inner circle would not have had such qualms and they, in fact had a free hand to do their will. When things happened, the president regularly failed to hold the perpetrators to account. When this phenomenon repeated, it created a culture of impunity that killers felt that they could walk free, after killing and maiming journalists. They obviously operated under the connivance of the powers that be, which explains the inaction on the part of the president or his inability to act, which cost him dearly in terms of his image. He should know now that he is a maligned figure in the eyes of the leaders of the free world; the cost he paid for his failure to act against those gruesome attacks and many other regular rights violations which happened under his watch.
However, his part in dismantling the free press is more nuanced, well coordinated and far more effectual in terms of taming the media than killing and maiming outspoken scribes.
His was a multi-pronged strategy. Unlike the white van and unknown assailants who appeared from nowhere and disappeared into the dark with their victims, this happened right under our noses, yet we were helpless to act. He coerced and coaxed independent media, their owners, editors and scribes to toe the government line. Newspapers once known to be outspoken were bought over by government cronies whose ill-gotten wealth had much to do with their links to the regime’s inner circles.
Two outspoken newspapers at that time, are now being owned by the associates of the regime.
The ownership of many other newspapers was either coerced or coaxed. The plight of the electronic media is far worse and is held, largely by a wheeler-dealer ownership, whose links to the regime is rewarded with radio and TV licences.
Fearing repercussions, the media entered into an unwritten code of conduct, and agreed grudgingly, that some people were beyond scrutiny, be that be the first family or his powerful brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But, the president is not your average autocrat; he passed to his erstwhile scribes and editors, files and compromising details of his opponents and potential challengers, and nodded in acknowledgement, as his chosen media crusaders tear his critics into pieces. He lavished senior artistes and journalists with interest free loans (which though some self-exiled holier–than-thou figures would cry murder, was no different from giving duty free permits for doctors or university dons. Nonetheless, I have neither applied, nor received one, so it is not one of those self-seeking apology) He invited editors and journalists to the Temple Trees for numerous breakfast meetings; we savoured hoppers and chit chatted with the powers that be and for someone oblivious to our plight, Sri Lanka would have looked like a country in perfect harmony.
Rajapaksa’s strategy in taming the independent media is new to this part of the world. A close parallel to this is Russia’s Putin, who, has rolled back Russia’s democracy and cracked down on independent media and civil society, by purchasing outspoken television stations through his cronies, and sending other media institutions into bankruptcy. (He has now driven the country into a recession.) Another would be, Venezuela’s former autocrat, Hugo Chavez, who suppressed once vibrant media in the country.
However, the sorry state in Sri Lankan media has a lot to do with its structural deficiencies, primarily in terms of the nature of the ownership and the absence of a clear demarcation between the editorial independence and the ownership control. Put it simply, an overwhelmingly large number of owners of both print and electronic media institutions are wheeler-dealers. The number of newspaper owners, for whom, the media is the core business is few and far between. In electronic media, there is hardly any, who belong to this category. For many others, media is a smokescreen for their casinos, bookies, gold trading, wheeler-dealing and a multiplicity of other dubious ventures. They have invested in media, least because of a principled position on the freedom of expression, but to use their newspapers, radios, TVs as a bargaining tool advance their other business interests. Also, owning a media makes nobodies into some bodies. That explains why a whole set of where-dealers have made a conscious decision to invest in media institutions, despite limited profitability in such ventures.
To make matters worse, where the option of brute force is always on the table, even the good-intentioned traditional owners of respectable institutions are forced to tread a delicate line; a line between the editorial freedom and survival of one’s own media institution, or in the worst case, one’s own life.
The absence of a demarcation between editorial and ownership control also makes matters worse. However, paradoxically though, this is becoming a matter of less significance
as some editors (both in Sinhala and English media) have proved themselves are better apologists of the regime than their own management. Many editors have their offspring
educated overseas courtesy the President’s Fund.
It is hard to blame the incumbent President for all our misfortunes. However, he brazenly exploited structural and personal weakness in the media industry and media fraternity. He turned journalists against each other; reading some of the dog-eats-dog commentaries in newspapers, penned by journalists who were well respected only a couple of years back, I am reminded of the ephemeral nature of human dignity and integrity.
Nonetheless, the forthcoming election and the on-going media campaign has given media an opening to vent our concerns and try to undo the damage inflicted on independent media, not only by Rajapaksa, but those who reined in the media before him, such as Mangala Samaraweera.
Media should make use of this opportunity.
We should demand justice for slain collogues and many others who were assaulted, abducted and forced into exile. Nonetheless, it would be a long and exhausting process and some of the perpetrators of those crimes could well be in a future government, even if the much desired political change happens. In the meantime, media should focus on more existential issues, which could qualitatively improve the professional standard of journalism. We should demand that state media institutions be transformed into public service media institutions in line with the BBC or NHK. Those proposals were first taken for discussion during the time of Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake and were abandoned by his successor.
Media should demand the enactment of the right to information bill, which, the opposition UNP has campaigned in Parliament.
However, given his past record, Mahinda Rajapaksa is unlikely to heed to those appeals; even if he does, I bet my two cents that he is not going to deliver on them.
Therefore, the rational choice is that we bet on his opponent.Follow Ranga Jayasuriya on [email protected]
(The Writer is the general secretary of Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association. Opinions expressed herein are his own)
[This article was first published in the Daily Mirror]