For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Last week a story on the front page of a daily English newspaper caught my eye. Not for its content but for the sheer absurdity of such a story having made headlines on the front page of a newspaper.
This was the story: Manioc stolen from Horogolla. The article went on to say that some 475 kilograms of manioc cultivated by Sunethra Bandaranaike had been stolen from the Bandaranaike walauwwa.
Never mind that people continue to get abducted almost every week – post war, the f
act that the Bandaranaikes’ lost manioc from their walauwwa makes front page news.
Even after the fighting has stopped the media situation in Sri Lanka remains precarious. The government, last year, banned 45 news websites
The government slogan during the war, “either you are with us or against us”, had been transcended and transferred to the local press who wary of any backlash have instead decided to play – safe. Very safe.
Journalists looking into even the more mundane stories – post war – investigating government corruption or wrongdoing find themselves in dangerous territory. Journalists are in danger. Journalism is at risk.
Journalists are still being targeted. Prageeth Eknaligoda remains missing. Then in July last year Uthayan news editor Gnasundaram Kuganathan was targeted. He was subjected to a brutal attack. His perpetrators are yet to be found.
The war and its aftermath are still treacherous subjects to write on. Journalists speaking on them continue to hide their voices and their identity. There is a very high degree of self censorship being practiced and still a culture of fear that pervades the print media – preventing it from going into issues that may bring them harm. That leaves such reporting to foreign news outlets.
Britain’s Channel 4 has been prominent with its coverage on Sri Lankan soldiers allegedly conducting atrocities on Tamil prisoners of war. The coverage has blown government rhetoric that what happened in the north was a clean humanitarian operation. The exposures have had an impact and as a result the West has been accused of being “jealous” of the Sri Lankan government.
For two years since the war ended the internet provided a platform – to a handful of Sri Lankan critics of the war. Through various means the government has been able to control the local media. On the one hand the government controls its domestic news agenda through its allies while on the other independent senior editors and staff are given financial and political benefits to achieve the same goal by other means.
The general public is reluctant to speak about the travails that affect the media. Or they simply do not care. Or care enough.
A government having won a civil war in the North is currently in control of its media. There is a cultural impunity which is damaging Sri Lankan society and as a consequence damaging the Sri Lankan media.
There are huge issues currently dominating Sri Lanka – yet the media in toto remains silent. Sri Lanka’s media coerced into silence cannot unite to speak out on issues such as killings and abductions. Last year, a list was tabled on the killings, attacks and abductions in Jaffna.
A 30-year-old male from Jaffna was found beaten and hanged to death at a playground in Achchuveli Thoappu in Valikaamam East, 20 km northeast of Jaffna city. The victim had been harassed by the Sri Lanka Army intelligence operatives 2 years ago, residents in the area said. So far no suspects have been taken into custody.
Why does the media continue to be silent on the attack on TNA MPs at a local government election meeting?
On June 16, 2011 armed army personnel in full uniform attacked a meeting of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in Alaveddy, relating to the upcoming local authority elections at which 5 TNA MPs were present. This was an internal party meeting that did not require police permission. Several MSD personnel of the MPs were also assaulted. Major General Walgama, who initially met the MPs soon after the incident, requested that the MPs refrain from lodging a complaint with the police, and further, that they ensure that the incident was not reported through the media. The MPs, however, did not agree to this and proceeded to make statements to the Police.
The incident also was reported to both Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe and the President. Major General Hathurusinghe initially issued a statement that this was a minor incident involving the army and the MSD personnel, but later claimed that he had been misquoted and assured the TNA MPs that if this was done by the army, he would take stern disciplinary action.
On June 20, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa confirmed in an interview to the Island newspaper, that in fact the army had stopped the meeting. No action has been taken thus far.
Every activity that takes place in the North and East first requires approval by the Presidential Task Force and the military.
Why does the media not collectively question this?
M. A. Sumanthiran TNA MP has reiterated that lists of beneficiaries for identified projects in the north have to be sent to the military. Incidents have been reported of the military altering these to include individuals they prefer for such assistance. Several families are unable to return to their homes due to the official and unofficial High Security Zone (HSZ) restrictions in areas in the North and East. Large areas of land have been taken by the military for camps and ad hoc HSZs in Thirumurigandi, Shanthapuram and Indupuram, covering the districts of Mullativu and Killinochchi. These HSZs also prevent/severely restrict, access to an unfettered livelihood.
Churches and private property are being occupied by the military in Jaffna, Mannar, and Mullaitivu.
Regular checking by the military takes place in many areas in the Jaffna, Killinochchi and Mullativu districts. Are not these issues for the local media to highlight consistently ? Are these not what make front page news and NOT the fact that the Bandaranaike waluwwa lost 475 kilograms of manioc?
Most advertisements/signboards on the A9 road from Omanthai to Jaffna are in Sinhala. 28 Buddhist statues were brought into the Palaly High Security Zone. Not news?
A significant number of Buddhist stupas/temples have come up on the A9 road, Paranthan, Kilinochchi, near the 561 division, next to Iranamadu tank, etc., What is wrong with us? Can we not see that we are trampling – stomping on the dignity of Tamils – post war? Why are we silent? Are we not supposed to be the watchdogs of this nation?
Sumanthiran maintains that Sinhalese fishermen are occupying padus belonging to Tamil fishermen in Vadamaarachchi East, thus denying them access to it.
Tiles and door frames of houses belonging to those who have been resettled in Vadamaarachchi East after the conflict, have been taken and used in Navy camps. So it is alleged.
The navy is occupying lands in Mullikulam, Vidathaltivu, Silavathurai, and Sannar, preventing people from resettling there. Approximately 200 families are affected due to this in Mullikulam alone. 3524 Acres of land has been taken for the Army camp at Sannar.
The other places where the Army has taken over land are, Paapamoddai, Parappukkadanthan, Nindavil, Kalliyadi, Savarikulam and Kovilkulam.
Similarly, the Police has taken over lands in Iluppaikkadavai, Adampa, Vidathaltivu, Paapamoddai, Vellikulam and Paaliyaru
Why do we, the press remain silent on these issues? Has Mahinda Rajapaksa been this successful in beating the media into submission? Clearly, the answer is a softly whispered – Yes.
Name boards with new Sinhala names have been fixed in several streets in Kilinochchi. When travelling from Jeyapuram to Pallavaraayankattu, near the Jayapuram junction, there are 2 streets named ‘Mahinda Rajapakse Mawatha’ and ‘Aluth Mawatha’.
These are only 2 examples of several such name boards. Police posts are situated near these boards to ensure they are protected. These boards are situated in the back streets of Kilinochchi to prevent the media from being alerted to this trend. Buddhist symbols were buried in the area in which the Kilinochchi market used to be. Claims are now being made that they are archeological finds from over 2000 years .
There have been several attempts to both create various ‘societies’ and to stage Sinhala cultural events in the area.
The military is in occupation of several areas in Pooneryn. This includes the Pooneryn hospital. Why is this not an issue for the press?
Are these not matters of national importance that should dominate the pages of our newspapers, and radio and television broadcasts? Is the label of ‘traitor’ too terrifying to be called to take on these issues that we as the media are only duty bound to do so? What of the issue of land grabs? Not only is it rampant in the North and East – namely places like – Batticaloa, Sampur, Vavunathivu, Chenkalady and Vaharai where almost 1050 acres of land belonging to the Sri Lanka Cashew Corporation is being utilized for the purpose of establishing a naval base, but it is happening right here in Colombo too. Right under our noses. If only we care to look . For example 680 perches of prime land at Bauddhaloka Mawatha has been allocated to the Russian Embassy to build a new complex in a mafia style case where the land has clearly been forcefully taken from its rightful owners. Read more on that story, as well as another land grab in the Kotte Municipality, in these pages next week.
We need to focus more on the economy. Elsewhere on these pages today we carry an article which highlights a multi billion rupee borrowing – nearly 400 billion rupees of it already spent – a part of loans obtained from the Chinese state-owned Export-Import bank.
Sri Lanka has come at a dismal 163rd in the Press Freedom Index 2011/2012. It has dropped from its previous position at 158 in 2010.
In a nutshell this is what it means. The latest world press freedom index contains sombre realities and confirms certain trends. Unlike before, it is clear that in Sri Lanka economic development, institutional reform and respect for fundamental rights do not necessarily go hand in hand. The defence of media freedom is at stake with a dormant and pliant media refusing to do battle.
That is President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s biggest triumph next to winning the civil war. He has beaten to the ground the local press who will no longer voice the oppression and injustices that continue to take place in this island nation.