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Friday, July 12, 2024

Sri Lanka: Freedom Of The Wild Ass Vs. Freedom Of Ambitious Bureaucrats

Editorial, The Sunday Leader.

More laws – less Justice: Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher, politician and a great orator of his time.

We need to find refuge in the words of such wise men, even 2000 years after they were made, to overcome the stupidity of our modern day rulers who try to fashion our lives through their directives and even legislation.

A hitherto unknown bureaucrat, recently appointed the Parliamentary Reforms and Media Secretary, Nimal Bopage, issued an astounding press release on Thursday warning the media engaging in ‘illegal and unethical’ use of the words to promote a section of MPs belonging to one main governing party, who call themselves the ‘Joint Opposition’. The Joint Opposition created by several MPs is without the input of either the Leader of the Opposition or the Joint Opposition Whip, he has said, claiming that according to reports the Joint Opposition is engaged in organising political propaganda and some media are aiding the promotion of it. Bopage has said that even the Speaker has pointed out to the faulty concept of a Joint Opposition and that the professional integrity of experienced journalists would be severely damaged. Misuse of media in such a manner sets bad, illegal precedents and journalists could be personally liable. Various persons would attempt to accomplish their narrow gains through misuse in the future. The secretary has requested journalists to follow their conscience to put an end to media misuse and to preserve the ‘thriving media freedom’.

While taking note of the gratuitous advice of this neophyte in the media on wellbeing of journalists, more important is what law would be transgressed if the words ‘Joint Opposition’ are used as he contends?

Whether a media secretary should be considered the patron and the guardian deity of journalistic ethics and morals, only journalists and their institutions can decide. Besides the issue of a ‘Joint Opposition’ is one that concerns parliament and parliament only. The parliament is not only the supreme legislative body in the land but also the supreme court as was evident when it impeached a Chief Justice recently – for wrong or right reasons. Why then is this newly appointed panjandrum taking on not only the onerous duty of advising the Fourth Estate but that of parliament as well? Clearly he is rushing in where wiser men would fear to tread. In our opinion, any group of legislators in a parliament has a right to group together and give the group a name. We have heard of a ginger group, a Dudley faction and JR faction and different factions of many splinter parties. Since in this instance there will be two oppositions (though each definitely distinguishable) it should be an issue for the Speaker together with parties to decide.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government should take care to prevent involvement of bureaucrats in politics which could lead to allegations of political partisanship of the government.

Most governments, though carried to power virtually on the shoulders of the media, have a habit to kick their carriers once in power. The media, due to the very nature of political developments, begin to criticise those whom they have helped into power. No politician will like biting criticism and thus by almost reflex action lash lusty kicks on their former supporters. That seems to be the affliction of theYahapalanaya government too.

Undoubtedly there has been some harsh criticism – on some very grave mistakes or frauds – by the media that has embarrassed some politicians. But that is the duty of the media which has to be appreciated.

The Yahapalanaya government had decided to re-invoke the Press Council Law – the law enacted by the United Front Government of Sirima Bandaranaike and the Marxists to tame the press after taking over the then independent group of Lake House newspapers. That law had draconian measures such as: Preventing any government employee talking to the press without sanction of a ministry secretary and the appointment of a Press Council devoid of representatives of the press – save one pro government journalist who happened to be more pro-government than the government.

The press has not caused any embarrassments to the new government other than to report on the embarrassments caused by its members to government. Though the Press Complaints Commission now appears to be functioning satisfactorily sans some Machiavellian characters whose shadows darkened it, has been considered necessary to bring back the Press Council law that was opposed vigorously by J. R. Jayewardene.

Now it has also been decided to establish a body similar to the Press Council Act to control the electronic media which also played a decisive role in bringing the Yahapalanaya to power. The usual carrots are being offered such as: the stake- holders will be consulted on vital issues. Once controlling institutions are established the faithful bureaucrats’ concern will be only for themselves and a cracking down on independent journalists to impress bosses.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, during his premiership during 2001- 2004, was closely associated with the establishment of the Press Complaints Commission and the scrapping of the Criminal Defamation Act, which was being used to virtually threaten the media into submission.

It is admitted that the best form of governance in a democracy is to have no control of the media at all but to establish strong binds of friendship and understanding between politicians, proprietor and journalists for the practice of free and fair journalism.

The freedom of the ambitious political stooge and the bureaucrat is much more disastrous to a democracy than the freedom of the proverbial Wild Ass.
Sunday Leader


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