For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
■Sri Lankans across the board, renowned for their friendly smiles and easy ways are too afraid to speak
A Norwegian journalist Correspondent for Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation sat across from me in my office last Tuesday. Norwegian Broadcasting is state owned and the largest media organization in Norway, BUT with absolutely no interference in editorial content.
For a population of 5 million people the network which includes radio and television has an audience of one million.
He was in Sri Lanka to cover issues, on the country post war, which included media freedom. He too, like all of us in the media, came up against a blank wall when attempting to speak with “people on the street”. Nobody would talk. “I was quite surprised,” he recounted. A journalist himself, he thought it rare that the public would not talk to journalists. He was puzzled.
I am not surprised, nor puzzled that people are too afraid to speak to reporters. This is a phenomenon we journalists have been up against for the last four years. Ever since the push to end a war involving Tamil separatists and government forces reached a pinnacle. Ever since journalists were barred from witnessing how the war was being concluded. Post war, journalists continue to come up against this wall of silence. It is a fear psychosis. From leading entrepreneurs, to ‘the man on the street’, Sri Lankans across the board, renowned for their friendly smiles and easy ways are too afraid to speak and this includes many of my own journalistic colleagues.
This newspaper paid the ultimate price –the target for assault, burning, victimization and suppression of free expression by successive governments, culminating in cold-blooded murder
There are reasons for this fear. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers have successfully succeeded in repressing reporters. There have been too many killings and disappearances of reporters coupled with police immunity.
The media – barring this newspaper – no longer tell you how it is. Few Western journalists have visited the former war torn areas in this past year. Magnus himself was refused a request to travel to Mullaitivu. Or more accurately, his letter seeking permission never got a reply.
The government remains paranoid about the Western media. Too afraid that their reports could end up like that of Channel 4 or used in an international quest to investigate war crimes charges against Rajapaksa and his government.
Both the military and the police are strapped by fear. Poorly briefed and no longer possessing educated, disciplined personnel, Sri Lanka’s uniformed muscle functions in constant fear of politicians. In a society increasingly sliding towards dictatorship, led by an all powerful Executive President armed with brothers who have donned mantles of power, based purely on the fact that their sibling is President, Sri Lankans have been subjected to the package deal. Rajapaksa and Co. – take it or leave it. If you refuse to take it – you are a traitor.
No man on the street, including the media in this country irrespective of whether they are state or privately owned, will dare question the final days of the war. Nor will they dare raise their voices against the rising tide of corruption. The media in fact are willing pawns in the hands of Rajapaksa & Co., as they dish out sunshine stories on mega development projects; never mind that the multi billion rupee port in Hambantota hit a rock (literally) nor that over 3 billion rupees remains outstanding for a multi billion rupee cricket stadium built at record speed in Hambantota merely to satisfy the perverted patriotism of the President and his brothers, or that daylight robbery is being committed as vast tracts of arable land are being seized/cleared and taken under state control all in the name of development and promoting tourism. The public remains silent as does the media. They are all – controlled.
It is this control that has led to the breeding of an ‘underground.’ Men and women, masquerading as journalists, prostituting this profession with no clue of the ethics or principles of good reportage. With no sound training in journalism nor any educational qualifications in that field they have nevertheless initiated what they call ‘news websites’ which effectively are nothing more than slander and gossip of the worst kind. Lanka e news is a good case in point. We have Rajapaksa and Co. to thank for this dismal situation within our own ranks.
Who for instance is questioning how the Defense Ministry plans on utilising the additional Rs. 15 billion allocated under the Appropriation Bill for next year? Take it from me it will not be the media.
Who dares raise issue with the fact – yes FACT – that out of a multi trillion rupee Appropriation Bill for the year 2012, over 20 percent has been allocated to the President, and several Ministries and some statutory institutions that come under the direct control of the Rajapaksa family?
On November 24, 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told the public that, “Bribery and corruption ruined the country. We have the legal frameworks to tackle corruption. What is lacking is the proper implementation of this legislation”.
On fraud and corruption, however, the President’s actions are inconsistent with his rhetoric. Two fraudulent privatizations, one, the corrupted privatization of Lanka Marine Services (LMSL) and the other, Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation (SLIC), annulled by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka remain uninvestigated and high level appointments made by the President himself effectively block even the prospect of a future investigation.
In addition, Rajapaksa’s administration is rife with conflicts of interest, nepotism and cronyism that have cost the people of Sri Lanka billions of dollars (trillions of rupees) at a time when they desperately need public services due to the consequences of a protracted civil war and a devastating tsunami.
Why do we allow President Mahinda Rajapaksa to get away with turning a blind eye to corruption? Why do we allow Mahinda Percy Rajapaksa to get away with being a dictator?
The people are afraid. That is why. Journalists are afraid too. Which is why they are self censoring themselves. They believe they need to. To stay safe. If any within our fraternity like those of us at The Sunday Leader – dare step out of line – dare buck this regime – no media organization in this country – will dare – stand by us. That has been the proven track record of The Sunday Leader and its relationship with the Editors Guild and Newspaper Publishers Society of Sri Lanka.
That apart, the current leadership of this country is suffering from an acute attack of PARANOIA. How else can the continuous harassment of journalists, the reintroduction of draconian laws against the media, the use of the army to police civilians and the apparent attempt to keep secret the report by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee which is to be handed over to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday November 15, be explained? Does not this nation have a fundamental right to know the findings of this Committee? At the very least in the name of truth and reconciliation?
We at this newspaper have ad nauseam called on the President to conduct a fair investigation into the dastardly killing of his former friend and ally Lasantha Wickrematunge. Even as he studiously ignored our pleas, we have trudged to court every two weeks hoping against all hope that the police would have found some clue as to who murdered Lasantha. To no avail.
If indeed Sarath Fonseka conspired to kill Lasantha why was the President silent for over one year since Wickrematunge was murdered before he began pointing a finger in Fonseka’s direction? Why was it impossible to garner sufficient proof to arrest and yes – hang him for murder if found guilty. We, at The Sunday Leader would be the first to salute and applaud Rajapaksa for ensuring that justice prevails. Or is there more to it, than the naked eye can see? Is there something that prevents a proper investigation?
We have asked these questions before. Never mind. Until we receive a satisfactory response, this newspaper will continue ad nauseam to repeat these questions. Again and again. Who was guilty for the horrendous assault on former Deputy Editor of The Nation newspaper Keith Noyahr? Who assaulted and knifed journalist Namal Perera together with his friend Mahendra Ratnaweera on a busy highway at 5.30 p.m. on June 30, 2008?
Who, hot on the heels of Lasantha’s killing, knifed former Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon as he left for office one morning at 7.30 a.m.?
It is well over two years since these deplorable attacks on journalists took place. Since then some two dozen journalists have left this country and continue to live in exile. What about the Tamil journalists murdered under Rajapaksa’s watch? Who killed them? Why has his government failed to find evidence or clues as to who committed these disgusting and nauseating attacks? Does the President, want us to believe that our police force is this impotent?
For decades successive ruling parties have killed, harassed and intimidated journalists. In the last few decades no single political leader or political party whether now in power or in opposition can claim that such did not happen during their time. No political leader can claim that he or she was not actively involved or alternatively kept quiet when journalists were being murdered.
This newspaper paid the ultimate price – having been a target for assault, burning, victimization and suppression of free expression by successive governments, culminating in cold-blooded murder under Rajapaksa’s watch. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga even went so far as to seal us in the year 2000, at which time Mangala Samaraweera was her Media Minister.
Frightening though, is that the trend continues when the ruling party enjoys an unprecedented wave of popular support following the defeat of the LTTE, the opposition in total disarray and the government naturally having nothing to fear.