By 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.
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.