FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION SRI LANKA

For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya

Paper submitted by Mr. V. Thevaraj
Editor in Chief, “Virakesari” weekly edition
at the Conference of the “International Association of Tamil Journalists”

London, 23 October, 2010.

University of Westminster

Harrow Campus, Watford Road, Northwick Park, Harrow, HA1 3TP.

A good day to you, ladies and gentlemen,

I thank the International Tamil Association of Journalists for having invited me to participate in this conference and consider it a privilege to address this august assembly on, “The Tamil National Question and Media in a Globalising World “.

One of the salient features of globalisation is democracy which calls for highly enhanced media freedom.  Globalisation has also brought human rights to the forefront.  Freedom of expression is also one of the human rights.   Moreover, with the advent of globalisation, the number of democratic countries have substantially increased.

The importance enjoyed by the media in the modern world framework needs special mention.  The entire world has become narrowed and shrunk in a manner that it could be closed in the palm of a hand.  The influence of mass communication in this transformation is considerable and significant.

In most parts of South Asia the media is not free though international efforts to promote freedom of information goes back to 1893, when the first Congress of Journalists was held in Chicago.

We have passed a century but are still on the verge of threats and dangers.  It reflects the voice of politicians rather than that of citizens.  Readers’ voice in the media is subject to the whims and fancies of media houses.

In Sri Lanka too, the print media is an effective arm in the field of communication and consists of several newspapers in all three main languages of the country.  As in the case of other media, broadcasting and electronic, the authenticity of reporting is questionable.  When people are involved in activities it is true that political affiliations have a definite impact.  Media and politics are inseparable.  In such a scenario, the balance of information flowing through the government is questionable.  Contradicting reports appear in different newspapers.  News presentations differ even language-wise.  The main reason for this situation is that news reporters are not present at the location of the incident and therefore, they are reliant on second hand information. Further, media bias is not particular to any country or situation and is a common ill today. While appearing independent, news media institutions are controlled or heavily influenced by government, business and other vested interests.

After the World Trade Centre attack in 2001, in America, the then President Bush declared action against international terrorism and tried to introduce a new world order.

In Sri Lanka, attempts were made by Mrs. Chandrika Cumaratunge and Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar to include the tiger issue as part of international terrorism and America was openly criticized for double standards by the, then government.  Ranil Wickremasinghe too, tried to create an international safety net against the LTTE.  Both these attempts were not successful.

But the Mahinda Rajapakse government, deviating from these two approaches, adopted a new approach to win the Tamil war. That is, by creating a new front using the Indo-China cold war, he won the battle.

The government is also consolidating all forces – intellectuals, the media, armed forces and other organisations against the Tamil cause. At the same time, capitalising on the defection of Karuna and a few others, they have also resorted to a divide and rule policy which is detrimental to the Tamil cause that has now come down to zero level.  The Tamil question remains unsolved.

The three decades of internal war is now over and it is felt that, with the defeat of the armed struggle, the need for resolution of the ethnic conflict has disappeared. With the fall of Kilinochchi, a discussion was held at the Taj Samudra Hotel, ‘after war what next’. At this discussion were political heads, embassy officials and some other leading personalities.  Two local journalists were also invited. I was one of them.  The other Sinhala journalist working for the foreign media attended this discussion just after a meeting with a top government official. He remarked that there was nothing to be solved for the Tamils adding that both the Sinhalese and Tamils have problems. He also said that both communities have to work together after the war.

But rightly, none of the participants shared his view. This incident is cited here to bring to light the trend of thinking among Sri Lankans in the south, after the war. The concern they had for the Tamil cause earlier has vanished into thin air.

During the war time, it was openly declared that freedom is secondary and eradication of terrorism was the priority. Even though President Mahinda Rajapakse announced a year ago that the war against the  terrorists have been won, the war against the media continues in this paradise island.

Anyhow, according to recent reports of the RSF, Sri Lanka occupies the 158th position in ranking in the index of media freedom, for the period upto October 2010, a slight improvement on the March 2010 figure of  162. The report states, ‘Sri Lanka (158th) jumped four places: less violence was noted there, yet the media’s ability to challenge the authorities has tended to weaken with the exile of dozens of journalists.’

Experiences also show that media freedom has been one of the major casualties in this process. It is said that truth is the first casualty in any war.  But in Sri Lanka, truth is always suppressed and trampled where the Tamil question is concerned.  World has seen how governments establish their own mouth-pieces, both the print and electronic media, to give a very distorted version of political and social events in favour of the government.  Suppression of media freedom by the democratically elected governments has seen many parallels with that of autocratic regimes which functioned during the yester-years, during the gone-by era and in contemporary times. This aspect of suppression and control of media in countries which boast of eradication of terrorism etc. are well demonstrated and does not need much elaboration at this point.

During the period of war, access to the Wanni was denied to non-government media persons.  However, some private media editors and journalists who worked for the Tamil media, at great risk, gave reasonable publicity on the difficulties faced by Tamils.

Sinhala and English media and some other electronic media played a major role in presenting news according to the dictates of the government.  No other media persons except the government media men could visit the Wanni.  Therefore, news broadcast were to the advantage of the government. On the other hand, the LTTE supplied information to the Tamil diaspora direct.

Iqbal Athas, a “Sunday Times” column writer who left the country is an analyst on war related matters and a journalist who wrote not only for the local newspapers but also for the foreign journal, “Jane’s Defense  Weekly”. He supported the war efforts of the armed forces, wished and appealed that the government should win the war. He also made an effort to report accurate information on the position of the war and the losses.

He was sent out of the country for having reported that the number of army personnel killed in battle was high and that he was not in a position to quote exact figures, adding that readers will understand the reason for it.  He goes on to say that he has never been in such a worse and fearful situation in his forty year media career.

Several websites in foreign countries carried news and visuals of the real situation in the Wanni.  Although this information was available to those in foreign countries, it was not available to Sri Lankans in their own country.  But it should also be said that not only the local media but even the foreign media  questioned the authenticity of these visuals.

Channel 4 has telecast cases of war crimes.  Many questions have arisen as to the authenticity of these telecasts.  Even at the present moment, questions have been raised not only on Channel 4 but also on other war crime video tapes.  Nevertheless, this channel has received the Human Rights Award from the Amnesty International. Even now, the government is questioning the authenticity of these tapes and is not willing to accept the request for an International Commission of Inquiry.  The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mr. G.L. Peiris, on his recent visit to the U.K. has emphasized this point.

Anyhow, with the support of the state media and some sections of the English and Sinhala private media, the government won the media war too.  As far as I can see, this situation is akin to the Storm Desert Gulf War by the western media.

South Asian

There is no inclination on the part of the South Asian Media to look into the minority issues from a global or human rights perspective and the present government is using the Tamil national question to create a competition between India and China, for its own benefit.

Where the English media is concerned, news, comments and the pseudo build-up provided by the “Hindu”, an English daily, on the Sri Lankan war and the Tamil national question are a cruel act of violation of media ethics, with gay. There is a long history behind this stand of the “Hindu” paper, and I would like to cite one incident. President Rajapakse who welcomed the celebrations in the aftermath of the take over of Kilinochchi announced that this success was achieved without a single civilian being killed.  In a telephone interview with the reputed Indian journalist N. Ram, the President said that the government maintained a zero civilian casualty policy.  Although the killing of a large number of civilians including children and thousands of injured people suffering due to lack of proper medical facilities was an open secret, the Hindu Daily published the announcement in a way to endorse the President’s statement. The argument that none of those killed was a civilian amounts to saying that all civilians are tigers. There need not be any doubt on this stand of the President and the Sri Lankan government. But, can those who are considered a reputed media act in this manner?

May I add that the Indian Central Government and the Tamil Nadu State Government capitalised on the Sri Lankan Tamil question for their own survival.  During the period of the internal war in Sri Lanka in May 2009, I was participating in the Katmandu Press Freedom Day.  I was at the Delhi Airport for about five hours as a transit passenger for my journey to Katmandu where I had the opportunity to meet many journalists. They expressed their  opinion that the Delhi External Ministry was a mouthpiece of the Sri Lankan government.
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Moreover, several journalists whom I met at Tamil Nadu were of the view that the Tamil Nadu State Government worked according to the agenda of the Central Government.  It was also mentioned that the Chief Minister Mr. Karunanithy personally contacted Tamil Nadu journalists to control the media on the Tamil question in Sri Lanka

International

The international press has failed to reflect the depth of the crisis that ordinary Sri Lankan citizens continue to face. Therefore, those journalists who believe in the importance of their role in disseminating information must question why the international media has failed to discuss and analyse the situation in Sri Lanka.

The information on the position of this fierce war, by reports from Indian English media and international media organisations like AP., AFP. and Reuters will make readers raise their voices but their voices are voiceless.

The assessment of these organisations is that the number of those killed is 70,000.  The figure of 65,000 that had remained static for the past several years has increased a little.

However, according to analysts Harvard Medical School, Washington University [Ziad Obermeyern, Christopher J.L. Murray, Emmanela Gaidou], 215,000 have been killed in confrontations so far. If   24,000 tigers and a like amount of soldiers are left out, all others are civilians. However, those journalists who show no concern for authentic news for reasons of racial differences, and their static statistics are the central points of big news organisations.

Most journalists did not go to the north-east areas even when there were no restrictions to visit these areas. It was their practice to write whatever was narrated by authorised army personnel living in luxurious residences.  It was their belief that the addition of a clause, ‘as told by the army’ was just enough to justify media ethics. Newspapers of this type and some other websites carry news, as given by the army, and even the headlines are written on the basis of these reports. Attempts were made by Iraq during the period of war, to control the media and make them accomplices. The same situation can be seen here presently.  Fundamental media ethics like verifying sources of information, checking their accuracy, impartiality and public welfare are gone with the wind.

An analysis of the international reportage of the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis, war and the subsequent events give and indication that the international media agencies were bowing to the pressure of the powers that be, which has made freedom of expression an almostimpossible function.  The story of deterioration of the administration of justice has not still been covered by the international press.

The collective failure of the international press appears to have aided the authority in strengthening the authority of the regime.  The reasons for the international media in its failure to discuss, analyse and portray its situation in Sri Lanka needs special investigation. These are some of the ideas of the Asian Human Rights Commission based in Hongkong.

There are instances where killings of certain media men are condemned only because those killed had supported  their organisations.  Silence is maintained on other killings. There cannot be silence citing the American attack against Al Jeera or the attack on the Palestine media by Israel. In a way attempts have been made to justify these despicable incidents.  This attitude prevails among us today.

As media persons, it should be our responsibility to raise our voices when journalists of any sector are killed or are found missing.

In the performance of their sacred duty a large number of media men have been killed.  Thousands are in jail. Some of them have left  and live abroad.  But neither the media nor the media men have ceased to function.  They are fighting strongly as usual to protect the democratic rights of people.

Tamil national question challenges:

01. On the international scene, the present attempts by India and China to have a hold in Sri Lanka has created a new dimension in international relations in the Asian countries.  The so-called cold -war waged by both countries in the context of globalisation and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is entirely a new factor which has to be studied and analysed by journalists.  This is also one of the major challenges confronted by the media.

02 The Sri Lankan government has won its war against the Tamils and has now declared war against the Tamil diaspora.

03. Most of the English and Sinhala media do not show willingness to compromise on Tamil issues and grievances.  However, it does not in anyway, mean that the entire English and the Sinhala media are against the Tamil question.  Some of the Sinhala journalists raise their voices for Tamils but sadly, that voice is voiceless.  How to overcome this issue is a major problem.  Until a solution to this issue is found or the matter is resolved, the Sinhala and English media, for certain, will keep the southern masses in the dark, on the Tamil question. The English and Sinhala media do not show any willingness to come to a consensus on Tamil issues and grievances.

04. During the post-conflict era, a new consensus is emerging among the majority political parties to the effect that, ‘with the defeat of the armed struggle, the need for the resolution of the ethnic conflict has disappeared’. Under the circumstances, the Tamil media has to confront problems in promoting a dialogue for the resolution of the issues.

05. The Tamil media is unable to understand why the Jaffna society is lacking social responsibility in giving a helping hand to the people who voluntarily migrated from Wanni Refugee Camps.  It is difficult to understand the recent initiatives taken by private entrepreneurs to construct hundreds of wedding halls in the peninsula while thousands of refugees were there suffering under trees and makeshift arrangements.

06. The public spiritedness that was freely present at the time of the T-sunami, cyclone and other disasters has very strangely disappeared and the media is finding it difficult to look into this mindset.

07.  It is also pertinent for the Tamil media to help the public to identify and develop a new leadership for the Tamils to meet the challenges and aspirations of the Tamils.  People have to be guided by the media to develop their own leadership.

08. The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora has been a very influential factor in the formulation of view-points regarding the Tamil related question in Sri Lanka.  During the post-conflict era they have a definite role to play in the rehabilitation of devastated areas in the Tamil regions.  The media is expected to play a role in the establishing of a relationship between Tamil people in need and the Tamil diaspora.  It is the media that should keep the diaspora informed about the prevailing conditions of the people.

09.  We also wish to stress on the need for the establishment of a new Tamil News Agency to function as a central body which would be located in one of the European countries.  The overall objective of this agency would be to propagate credible information throughout the Tamil speaking world about the socio-economic and political conditions of the people.

10. In regard to the rehabilitation problems carried out in the war affected areas, the Tamil media is not in a position to make an appraisal of the existing situation of  critically analysing  the progress for the benefit of the suffering  people.

I conclude on the note that, the key to the Tamil national question is, ‘balancing minority aspirations against majority apprehensions’.  Don’t you agree?

………Thank you ladies and gentlemen, for your patient hearing.

V. Thevaraj
Editor in Chief, “Virakesari” weekly edition
London, 23 October, 2010.

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