The Rajapakse regime, Ranil Wickremasinghe and media freedom in Sri Lanka

Upali Tennakoon | Published on July 8, 2011 at 5:29 am

Deputy Opposition Leader Karu Jayasuriya with the Freedom of Information Bill

The decision to present the Freedom of Information Bill to parliament was a wise and sensible move by the UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya.

Such legislative measures are essential to buttress democracy and freedom of expression in a country. Mr.Jayasuriya should be given credit for taking the initiative to introduce this particular bill which is one of the best bills presented to parliament during the recent past. It is a shame that the Bill was shot down by the Rajapakse government.

The rejection of this Bill is also an indication of the government’s approach towards the right to information of the people and its unwillingness to accept their democratic rights.

Various excuses

The government defeated the attempt made by the UNP Deputy Leader by bringing out various reasons, excuses and erroneous theories. Some ministers stated that this bill was drafted with the support of the “Tamil Diaspora, NGOs and LTTE sympathizers”. It has become a tradition of the government to repeat this particular mantra whenever there is an attempt towards democracy that would not benefit the government and its leaders in the short or long term. Thus, the UNP Deputy Leader’s attempt was subverted in a pernicious manner and the right to information bill was not legitimized.

Joining hands

If the government had a genuine desire to ensure the rights of the people, it should have joined hands with the UNP to endorse this bill. Then it would have certainly become a landmark in Sri Lankan political history. Instead of supporting it, the government vehemently opposed it for no valid reason. This is nothing but a continuation of the same process that has been carried out by the government overtly and covertly for more than five years, in order to curb the democratic rights of the people of Sri Lanka.


Lasantha Wickrematunge poses for the cameras during a happier occasion 13 days before he is brutally murdered

Sri Lanka, as we all know, has become a country where there is no right to information. Freedom of expression and media freedom are buried by the present regime. Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed. Several other journalists were brutally assaulted. With these lethal attacks the government has spread fear among media personnel. Both the print and electronic media are being prevented from reporting on key issues that affect people adversely. Media institutions are compelled to run on a “day to day functioning basis’” without criticizing the government. In fact the institutions are being tamed by the government one way or the other. Some have voluntarily tamed themselves. ‘Taming’ and ‘being tamed’ have become the most significant characteristics in contemporary journalism in Sri Lanka.

Living in exile

While living in exile, I know it’s not fair to criticize journalists who are still working in Sri Lanka. How can we put the blame on them? No one wants to get killed. No one wants to get trapped in unwanted troubles. Journalists like us are forced to live overseas in order to protect our lives. Had it been otherwise, we would have stayed in Sri Lanka and carried out our work. Now the majority of our media institutions have overstepped the limits of ‘tameness’ and become servile lackeys of the government. Journalists have become too fearful and diffident. For a journalist, it is an essential thing to know how to safeguard his or her dignity in a challenging situation. But, in Sri Lanka, most of the journalists have failed to do so.

Award for escaping death

In this context, I think I have to comment on the activism or lack thereof In the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka ( EGOSL ). I do not in any way wish to antagonize my fellow editors who used to work with me when I was in Sri Lanka and my hope is that they take my words in the spirit in which it is written.

the Editors Guild decided to present an award to me after I faced that brutal attack in January 2009. I simply had no idea about the intention of this ‘award’. What did they expect to gain for media freedom by presenting me with an award? Did they want to appreciate me for escaping death and fleeing the country?

On the other hand, the government did not conduct any serious investigation whatsoever in to the attacks against media. So moved was I about the Guild inaction that I even wrote for publication a brief letter to the newspaper for which I had worked inquiring about the true intention of this award. However the owners of the newspaper prevented my article from being published. How can such submissive newspaper owners serve the country and its people? They are even worse than the editors and usually brandish all the power.

I then sent this letter to the Secretary of the Editors Guild. The Editors Guild, I believe, could have done better than to merely present an award to an assaulted editor. And yet the Editors Guild completely turned a blind eye to the real issues and abdicated its sacred duties towards journalists under threat. Obviously it felt that presenting awards was sufficient action.

Meaningless awards

In such a context, no one would like to accept an award from an organization that ran away from its duties. The same can be said about the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge as well. He was killed, more than two years ago. Where are the inquiries and investigations? Why did the Editors Guild remain silent save to belatedly – over a year later – present him too with a meaningless posthumous award. Was this to assuage their guilt or to associate themselves with names that had gained traction on the world stage? Was it to cosmetically dress up their annual award ceremony at which diplomats/donors and funders would be present?

Why did the Guild not demand for and pressurize the government to conduct fair and independent investigations? At least they could have sent a letter to the President as a powerful body and indeed the foremost organization within the media. In Wickrematunge’s case it was left to Lasantha’s wife Sonali Samarasinghe to fight for justice and to send two letters to the President, one in April 2009 the other in January 2010 and another to the then Inspector General of Police – Jayantha Wickremaratne, calling for an independent investigation.

Why did the Editors Guild not pursue legal action against the government for failing to ensure the human rights of the editors? It is a mystery why the Editors Guild refrained from taking action against these attacks on its members and other journalists. The question is did they forget to take action or did they deliberately neglect their responsibilities.

Overarching reason

There is one overarching reason for this. Even the Editors Guild does not have the freedom to raise its voice on these incidents. It too has succumbed to the fear psychosis spread across the country by the government. Under the prevailing legal measures in Sri Lanka, journalists are prohibited and restricted from gathering and publishing news. The state of emergency plays a pivotal role in restricting journalists. Under emergency regulations, a journalist can be questioned or detained any time by the Police. Basically, journalists enjoy ‘professional immunity’ not to divulge their sources. But, this immunity is rendered nugatory by the Emergency Regulations and therefore the Police can hunt down journalists by using ‘court orders’. They can take into custody hand written copies, notes and machinery plates into custody.

In addition to these conditions, Sri Lanka itself has adopted a unique culture in terms of handling media. Directly and indirectly media is strictly prevented from gathering and publishing news against President Rajapakse and the top echelons of the government.

Hunting down journalists

Under normal journalistic traditions, there is an accepted and civilized way of denying and rectifying media reports. Instead of doing that, the heads of the present government have adopted a policy of hunting down journalists and informants, who publish news reports against the regime. Their intention is not to rectify errors but to silence the media.

A few decades ago, the then leaders of the country acted in an entirely different manner. There are occasions on which those leaders even commended the media for pointing out errors within the government.

Nightmare

During my 35 year career as a journalist, I had to confront many challenges due to the lack of media freedom. I’ve been interrogated more than 25 times by the CID on various news stories. The nightmarish period of 1988-89 was the most challenging period to work as a journalist. The JVP led ‘Deshapremi Jaathika Wyaapaaraya” and the then UNP government unleashed immense violence upon the society to counter each other. In that backdrop, ‘death’ was very common and life was cheap. Those CID officers who questioned us were tasked to identify our informants. But I was very careful never to betray my sources of information.

Nowadays, the approach of journalists has changed to some extent. Under the present regulations, only Ministry Secretaries are authorized to issue news to media about their respective ministries. Sometimes, they appoint media spokespersons or coordinators of ministries in order to deal with Media under the powers they have been provided by the government.

But journalists cannot completely rely on these ‘official sources’ and have to make use of the ‘alternative sources’ as well. On such occasions, the Editor and the reporter are responsible for the veracity of the story. Whenever newspapers publish these kinds of stories, Ministry officials tend to deny them since those revelations can cause ‘unwanted troubles’ for them.

Some editors do not accept these denials and fight hard to corroborate the story with concrete evidence. But most accept such denials and remain silent. They remain silent mainly because they are afraid to take on challenges. This is a result of the ‘fear psychosis’. In this context, it is not difficult to understand why most of the vernacular media turn a blind eye to the defeat of the Right to Information bill. It is the collective media as a major force that could have spear-headed the struggle to get this bill passed in parliament.

This bill could have provided them a congenial working atmosphere for them to conduct their work without fear and interruption. But the media is silent. This has become the normal tradition of the Sri Lankan media vis-à-vis the state oppression. To change this, there should be legislative measures such as the Right to Information bill.

Ranil Wickremasinghe

In 2004, during the period of the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka presented


Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe (L) and Karu Jayasuriya in conversation

him the draft of this bill. He welcomed it and presented it to the parliament. But unfortunately, just before the endorsement of the bill, the then President Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge dissolved  parliament. I think Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe made a genuine effort to legitimize right to information. His approach towards this was very positive. But, due to the complicated political circumstances he confronted, he was unable to get the bill passed in the parliament. During his tenure, the Editors Guild brought out some significant proposals to buttress media freedom and freedom of expression.

 

Criminal defamation

The first proposal was to remove the Criminal Defamation Law. This age old law was causing immense anxiety to the newspaper editors. The most famous incident was President Kumaratunge’s lawsuit against the Sunday Times Editor Sinha Ratnatunge. In addition to that, there were five separate cases against newspaper editors by then. All these cases were filed under the Criminal Defamation Law. This was becoming a headache to all the Editors.

In a context where those parties could have used Civil Law to prosecute editors, they used ‘Criminal Defamation Law’ instead. When the Editors Guild urged Mr. Wickramasinghe to remove it, he accepted it and repealed the law. This is a historic landmark in Sri Lanka’s journalism and Mr. Wickremasinghe deserves credit for that.

Wickremasinghe and media freedom

The second proposal was implementing the ‘Right to Information’ bill. Lengthy discussions were held between then Prime Minister Wickremasinghe and the Editors Guild in this regard. During that period there were some concerns as to how this bill would affect national security. After many discussions some amendments were introduced to this bill in order to prevent clashes between the bill and national security. It was another instance where Mr. Wickremasinghe genuinely showed his intention towards ensuring media freedom.

In addition to these, there was another proposal to amend the regulations on Contempt of Court and Parliamentary privileges. Both these regulations affect adversely on the public and it jar on the rights of people. Parliamentarians can breach the rights of the people when used to prevent the media from reportage or critical commentary.

Contempt of court

Regulations on ‘Contempt of Court’ also fall into the same category. Due to the presence of that law, media is refrained from criticizing judgements or the judiciary and has an adverse impact on democracy and the rights of people. During Wickreasinghe’s short but media friendly stint in power discussions were also held aimed at amending such negative regulations. Today, more than hundred countries in the world have legitimized ‘Right to Information’ acts. Even in SAARC countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal this law has been included in their constitutions.


National Congress Party Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were at odds over the groundbreaking freedom of information act that many say was the first step to breaking down widespread corruption problems in India. Photo taken from Christian Science Monitor

In this case, India is the ideal example for Sri Lanka. It is believed that most of the corruption and money scams in India which occurred in the recent past came to light because of this Act. It has certainly benefited India and bolstered it to forge ahead as a fast-growing economy. Very recently, India decided to draft an anti corruption bill in order to curb bribery and corruption. At the same time, an Independent Election Commission was appointed in India as well. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of these democratic legislative measures.

Pakistan is also a good example for Sri Lanka in this regard. Pakistan legitimized this bill even before India and the most significant fact is that it happened under the tenure the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan is a country where there are several terrorist movements active including Al Qaeda. But Pakistan was not hesitant to legitimize this bill. It doesn’t mean that there is ‘Perfect Democracy’ in Pakistan but this bill is undoubtedly an important development in terms of democracy. In the United States, this particular measure was the very first amendment to its Constitution. It clearly shows how important it is to ensure democratic rights in a country.

But in Sri Lanka, it seems like the rulers are not learning lessons from these international experiences. And, on the other hand, they don’t show a true intension towards ensuring democratic rights of the people. Moreover, the lawmakers in Sri Lanka are afraid of such measures because they feel that it will boomerang upon them, sooner or later. So, in this context, it’s up to the civil society to force lawmakers to implement such laws. But, unfortunately, we don’t have powerful ‘Civil Organizations’ in Sri Lanka. Compared to Sri Lanka, India has more viable and more powerful Civil Organizations so that they can make a huge impact on their law makers. If we had robust Civil Organizations in Sri Lanka, they could have mounted a strong resistance against the government, when it shot down this right to information bill. On the other hand, they could have forced the government to endorse it and implement its recommendations.

When the government introduced that notorious ‘Private Sector Pension Scheme’ there was a strong reaction from the Civil Society and it forced the government to withdraw it. Notwithstanding the resounding majority in Parliament, the government had to withdraw the Private Sector Pension Bill. But,when it comes to this particular bill on right to information, we didn’t see a powerful reaction from the public.

Apparently, the government is spouting forth irrelevant politically motivated excuses and making illogical statements  to justify its rejection of the bill. One is to inquire if the opposition UNP would present such a bill, if it were in power. Opposition leader Mr. Wickremasinghe has already provided  an answer to this question   during his tenure as the Prime Minister. So, the UNP cannot be blamed at all, particularly in this regard.

The government should understand that such suppressive acts are not sustainable and harmful to the government in the long run. There will come a time when these myopic self-seeking actions will backfire on the present regime.

 

 

 


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The Rajapakse regime, Ranil Wickremasinghe and media freedom in Sri Lanka

Deputy Opposition Leader Karu Jayasuriya with the Freedom of Information Bill The decision to present the Freedom of Information Bill to parliament was a wise and sensible ...