24 October, 2020

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A Government’s Nightmare – The Free Media

By Sharmini Serasinghe

Sharmini Serasinghe

Sharmini Serasinghe

The media in Sri Lanka never had it easy, but the period 2006 – 2014, was its worst.

In 2009, the government revived legislation that vests the Sri Lanka Press Council, a statutory body, with broad powers to restrict the media and punish offending journalists and publishers with fines and imprisonment.

The law was first enacted in 1973, by the coalition government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, amid a deep economic crisis and widespread social discontent.

The Press Council continued to function as a mechanism, to intimidate the media under successive governments until 2002, when it was rendered inoperative through a bipartisan resolution in parliament.
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Isn’t it strange that when a political party is in the opposition, the media is its friend, and howls on its behalf, when an injustice is deemed, done. But the moment it comes to power, the exact opposite happens!

Although Sri Lanka’s constitution guarantees ‘freedom of expression’ in theory, in practice this is usually not the case. There are various ‘laws’ and ‘regulations’ in place, to limit this ‘freedom’.

One such is the 1978 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which contains extremely broad constraints, on ‘freedom of expression’. Hence Journalists are subject to all types of legal harassment and physical intimidation.

In 2006, under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, an unofficial censorship on issues relating to ‘national security and defense’ was imposed by the government. It then went on to set up, what was called the ‘Media Center for National Security’, to disseminate all ‘information’ related to ‘sensitive issues’, to the media and public, as they deemed fit.

Then, in 2009, the government announced that it was reviving a law that had not been enforced, in more than a decade; the draconian 1973 Press Council Act. This law was enacted, during the SLFP regime, under the premiership of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. During her tenure in office, the Lake House Group of newspapers was nationalised, and the Gunasena newspaper group, sealed.

During the Rajapaksa regime, and at the height of the civil war, Sri Lanka was described, as one of the most dangerous places in the world, for journalists.
Despite the war ending in 2009, murders of journalists, physical attacks, kidnappings, threats and censorship continued, with fingers being pointed at senior government officials, and the military.

One of the first journalists of the English free-media, who faced the brunt of such wrath, was Keith Noyahr– Associate Editor and Defence Correspondent of the Nation on Sunday newspaper, in May 2008. He subsequently fled the country, never to return.

January 2009 also saw the murder in cold blood, of Lasantha Wickrematunge – Editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper. The ‘investigation’ continues to date, with the ‘murderer/s’ still at large.

Journalists, who reported on ‘sensitive’ subjects, particularly those who were critical of the government, military hierarchy, or even the ‘ruling family’, were harassed and intimidated.

Such journalists were branded “unpatriotic”, with their writings equated to treason. State-controlled media and the Defense Ministry website smeared and slandered such journalists. Self-censorship followed, with journalists becoming apprehensive, of using the tools of their trade.

In 2010, the government announced its plans to create a ‘Media Development Authority’. This outfit, set up under the guise of promoting media ethics and training, was granted carte blanche to regulate the media, as it deemed fit.

In 2011, several journalists were threatened with death, while others were assaulted, kidnapped, or both. The independent Uthayan newspaper, based in Jaffna, was attacked during that year, after carrying a critical story of the government, and paramilitary groups operating in the north. The News Editor Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan was brutally attacked by unidentified men.

Journalists in droves fled the country, in fear for their lives, leaving a massive vacuum of experiences professionals, in the local media sector. Several private media establishments came to be ‘owned’, by close associates of the ‘powers that be’.

Before long, social-media caught on, and became the only source of ‘reliable’ information. An irate government stepped in, and blocked a number of independent news websites, including Colombo Telegraph and Lanka eNews.

Free Media- a thorn in the flesh

With the exception of Presidents DB Wijetunge and JR Jayewardene, with the latter handling the media in his own ‘foxy’ way, all others have regarded the free-media as a thorn in the flesh, and therefore needed subduing, by any means possible.

During the Premadasa regime, of the privately owned newspaper groups, the Upali newspapers was one, that suffered the most. The Island Editorial of 3rd May, 2008 recalls –

“He sent us on a journey through hell, to say the least. His day would begin with a tirade against us and he did everything possible to send us out of business. We have reliable information that during the late 1980s, some members of his government conspired to destroy our press with a rocket attack, which was later abandoned due to strong protests from the late Minister Ranjan Wijeratne”.

The Editorial goes on to state that journalists were harassed and assaulted on numerous occasions during the Premadasa regime. In 1992, UNP goons set upon a group of journalists covering a DUNF protest opposite the Fort Railway Station. Cameras were smashed and the media men were assaulted with bicycle chains and clubs. Some of them were pistol-whipped. When they went to the Fort Police to lodge a complaint, the OIC had the temerity to tell them, that the police station had been closed! Later adding insult to injury, the then Prime Minister and Deputy Defence Minister DB Wijetunga audaciously claimed the journalists had been attacked by irate train commuters, who had been disturbed by the protest in question. This prompted The Island newspaper to ask, whether ordinary passengers carried pistols, bicycle chains and clubs on their way to work!

It was also during President Premadasa’s tenure, that Richard de Zoysa was abducted, tortured and killed. Richard was an internationally renowned journalist, author, actor and a human rights activist, and his murder sent shock waves thought the country and beyond.

When President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga took over the reins of Executive Presidency, she sought refuge under the criminal defamation clauses in the Penal code.

Sri Lanka’s ‘Fourth Estate’, has never quite enjoyed ‘free-media’ in the true sense of its term. Hence, it ambles along, facing challenge after challenge, with each political regime change. However, during the Rajapaksa era, it found itself in one of the worst ever predicaments. Journalists and publishers found themselves, caught between the devil, and the deep blue sea; face fines and imprisonment as per the Press Council law, that gave wide powers, which couldn’t be challenged in any court of law, or be abducted, tortured, killed, or both!

 

*Sharmini Serasinghe was Director Communications of the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) under Secretary Generals Dr. John Gooneratne and Jayantha Dhanapala. She counts over thirty years in journalism in both the print and electronic media.

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Latest comments

  • 10
    2

    It is also a fact that the media frequently forgets the dictum that facts are sacred while comment is free. I can see this happening at this very moment. Contradictory and unverified information, frequently found speculative or blatantly false appears in the media. Everything any idiot utters finds its way As news, however stupid it may be. Unless the media also learns to handle its freedom responsibly, it is the people who are caught in the nut cracker of government regulation/ strangle hold and an irresponsible/wayward media.

    Dr.RN

    • 6
      1

      As controlled by big business as the media is in other countries, thanks primarily to electronic mass communication that reality has been somewhat diluted.
      The fact that the almighty rupee (dollar?) reigns is the recent reality of a blatant “advertorial” from Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s private navy appearing in the Sunday Times, two whole pages in colour WITHOUT SO MUCH AS A SUGGESTION THAT IT WAS NOT A REPORT FROM ONE OF THE WIJAYA GROUP’S JOURNALISTS!
      If ever proof be needed of the ability of the advertising rupee (dollar) to distort fact and serve a narrow corrupt cause here it was, the process presided over by the uncle of the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

      The appropriate label needs to be affixed to such conduct: crass, corrupt and obscene!

      • 2
        0

        The situation is not any better when it comes to this uncle’s son !

        This guy with no prior experience was promoted to as state minister of defense.

        This minister has to sneeze and its front page news with pictures on the daily mirror !

        I am told he is being promoted to take over the UNP after Ranil….time will tell !

      • 1
        1

        Dear Emil van der Poorten,

        “the ability of the advertising rupee”

        You have hit the nail squarely on its head.

        Every Journalist would be aware that real stories that deserved publication have been killed by management because of the power of the “Advertising Rupee” of big businesses and govt.

    • 2
      2

      Ms. Sharmini Serasinghe –

      RE: A Government’s Nightmare – The Free Media

      “Before long, social-media caught on, and became the only source of ‘reliable’ information. An irate government stepped in, and blocked a number of independent news websites, including Colombo Telegraph and Lanka eNews.”

      Thank you for the summary.

      It was the social Media, Facebook, Twitter, U-tube, blogs and other social media where one-could get reliable news.

      So , one way to fight back is for every Citizen with common sense have a facebook , Twitter and some blog and make it difficult for the state to control the truth and the free flow of information.

      The Social media played a key role in the defeat of Medamulana Mara and their cronies. We need to thank the american inventors and entrepreneurs for making the social media a global media for the people, when state controlled the access to information.

  • 4
    4

    What is the point you are making Sharmini?. Do you want free press or not?. Do you see sufficient press freedom under Yaha…ya? What changes to the Law and monitoring bodies you wish to see? Are you happy with the type of press freedom practised by the likes of BBC, CNN, Al-J..ra?. A treatese on the history of press freedom in SL is only of academic interest to many.

    • 3
      0

      If you are that smart, the option is open for you to write in the deficiencies of the Article, and suggest additions, corrections, alternatives. By your reference to the Middle East broadcaster as “Al-J..ra” you have subconsciously displayed your servile admiration for the Jarapassas. Also your choice of pseudonym is interesting, because its subject is vastly responsible for distorting the original Bible.

      Your moral dishonesty, Paul, far supercedes that of Wimal Weerawansa.

      • 0
        0

        You are wrong and wrong here Navin. My questions are what they are: I could not see answers to any of them in here.
        As for Al Ja Zeera, I did not mean to use a derogatary term, simply I was not sure of spelling at the time. (I still don’t think I got it right – but I will check soon. I was too late to correct even “Treatise” spelling error). As for my pseudonym, I don’t know, no care how it resembles to anyone distorting a book I haven’t read. May be you should write on that for the benefit of the likes of me. And I am proud to be associated with / compared / or identified as a follower of well known politicians you name, although I have never met, or seen or voted for either in my whole life ;-)

        • 1
          1

          Paul,

          Do not worry. You never will be. Your spelling and Grammar is a mirror reflection of your intelligence levels. Ignorance is bliss, my man. Please continue to hold fort thinking you are one.

          • 1
            0

            Thank you gamini, you really are clever.

            However you wrote “Your spelling and Grammar is a mirror reflection of you intelligence levels” . This should be corrected as “Your spelling and (g)rammar (ARE) a mirror reflection of your intelligence level()”. Three in one!. Do keep on correcting others gamini like the proverbial prawn.

    • 1
      1

      Paul/Saul:
      “A treatese on the history of press freedom in SL is only of academic interest to many.” Since when? Every Sri Lankan is not a blithering idiot and MR stooge like you.
      P.S.
      Didn’t your “spellcheck” tell you that there is no word such as “treatese” or is that one coined by your Lord & Master like everything else he controlled in this country?

      • 1
        1

        Poorte mate,
        English is not my language and good 90% of the world population is getting by without it quite nicely although you seem to worship it all your life.
        On my spelling error on “Treatese”, you are jumping the gun. I corrected myself earlier on when I wrote “I was too late to correct even “Treatise” spelling error” (see my 8th May 5:43 time stamped post).

        As a person belonging to a group of people who only had the english language, a little bit of rugby and all out support from the establishment but did not have to pass SSE / HSE to become an Estate Superintendents or a director or any other big man in a colonial enterprise, I am least surprised by your comments.

  • 3
    1

    The concept of a ‘free media’ is a MYTH world over – particularly so in Sri Lanka.

    For the most part, the media in this country is controlled by a coterie of businessmen/women beholden to politicians of different hues and successive governments for patronage not to mention large corporates with huge advertising budgets.

    With a few exceptions(if any), even the start-up of these media ‘Houses’ (press and electronic) was due to state patronage.

    For the most part, it is superfluous commenting on the integrity and ethics of those controlling media ‘Houses’ (press and electronic) since the discerning public are well aware of the ground reality.

    If we had a ‘free media’ would not websites such as ‘Colombo Telegraph’ be out of business? What percentage of ‘Colombo Telegraph’ articles would ever be published/aired in our purported ‘free and independent’ media (press and electronic)? I rest my case.

    It is not for nothing that the press (media) is known as the ‘Fourth Estate’. It has a crucial role to play in national development.

    It is crucial that the public push hard for a ‘MEDIA COMMISSION’ to be brought under the ambit of the 19th Amendment as an ‘INDEPENDENT’ commission to bring an acceptable level of integrity and credibility to our media.

    The less said about the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) and Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) ‘controlled’ by a cabal of media owners the better.

  • 0
    1

    “Isn’t it strange that when a political party is in the opposition, the media is its friend, and howls on its behalf, when an injustice is deemed, done. But the moment it comes to power, the exact opposite happens!”

    Under “normal” circumstances any democratic and non-corrupt government Tthat subjects itself – rather than places itself above – to the law, will have a very cordial and facilitative relationship with free media which will be mutually beneficial with media benefitting from access to information and the government benefitting from media exposure of activities.

    Sri Lanka however is not normal. Its very constitution empowers the president – its chief executive – to place him or herself above the law in both official as well as personal capacity. “Where any person holds office as President of the Republic of Sri Lanka, no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against him or her in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by him or her, either in his or her official or private capacity”. It is not surprising therefore that the whole government and in fact the whole body politic arrogates to itself this supra legality in its conducting of day to day matters. The legal system connives in this charade by twisting the law to suit the interests of one party or another.

    At present the nation is being entertained to the drama of watching a judge leaping at unseen and unseemly speed to overturn his own order in the Colombo District Court and calling the case almost daily in an attempt to advance the interests of the owner of a soft drink bottling plant from the land close by who is attempting to grab 157 perches of land in Colombo worth 1,491,500,000/= for a fraction of its market price cheating the beneficiaries of the trust to which the land belongs out of over a billion rupees which is their due. Media exposure of the reasons behind the courts acting so hastily and in such a servile manner to satisfy the agenda of this neighborhood soft drink bottler will lead to the discomfiture of the minister of justice and the government as well and so the press has been told not to report what is going on to the public while the beneficiaries of the trust are being pressured.

    The exposure of this and other similar manipulations of the legal system that are afoot as well as the extortive demand that selected individuals transfer their strategic businesses at 50% of their value to persons close to various ministers will make it clear that the Sri Lankan legal system is severely compromised and therefore Sri Lanka – unlike Singapore – is as yet hardly the location where an international arbitration center can be housed (http://www.colombopage.com/archive_15A/May03_1430660400CH.php) and so once again the press is discouraged from reporting on the increasing subversion of the legal system and the growth of a green mafiosa.

    It is because governments both green as well as blue and even the current greenish blue or bluish green one indulge in such subversive activities that they are unable and unwilling to cultivate cordial relations with a free media and seek instead to repress the media and insist on its servility. Given the scale of events unfolding it is just a matter of time before we are once again “the worlds most dangerous place for journalists”.

  • 1
    0

    Pretty face!

    Free media is a myth, this is relevant cross the globe. Your articles are enjoyable however your opinions on certain issues are biased.

  • 0
    0

    Please ask SF and GR about the brutal depraved attack on Keith Noyahr. He is scarred for life. Ask Iqbal Athas about SF. Lasantha was murdered2 weeks after his anti SF article about how SF awarded all the medals to himself. This govt . is AFRAID of the truth.

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