Colombo Telegraph

Fighting For FOI: Have We Realized What An Ugly Being A Dictator Is?

By Shyamon Jayasinghe –

Shyamon Jayasinghe

There’s Nothing Like Free Flow Of Information; Let’s Fight For It

Yes, unhindered free flow of information is an absolute necessity for good governance and peaceful living.  I realize we must be aware of the dangers of media dominance itself. We are in a world of relativities. Our hopes must work out within the limitations of this wider reality.

By definition information has to be carried. Carriers of information constitute the media. This is why the civilized world demands media freedom and unrestricted access to information. Those who attack this right to freedom of information do so simply because they have a lot to hide. Those who have come to believe that they have the right to decide on behalf of a whole population of people are known as ‘dictators.’

Have we realized what an ugly being a dictator is? Whoever, he or she may be? Wherever they may reign? A guy who has grown megalomaniac, egocentric, greedy and wants to control everyone around him?  Who imagines he knows the answers and that others are less intelligent beings who must simply follow him; who derives personal pleasure when others fall at his feet, worship him or praise him; who thrives on an immediate comfort zone of sycophants around him; who is protected by a ring of heavies-both official and unofficial? Isn’t such a monster simply ugly?

In lesser or bigger degrees we come across such control freaks even in ordinary non-political life. In a family setting, a husband or a wife or even a grown- up sibling may show these control-centric qualities. Outside the family, we observe such gone-wrong personalities in open society. Observe a common social discussion at a common neighborhood gathering and one can spot such characters. They hardly realize that they are loathsome and that they are let to survive as a result of the civility of others.

Such personalities are material that is transformable into politicians. They enter politics just in order to seek power over others. Let’s leave aside the material benefits that may accrue as byproducts and accompaniments of power. Let’s focus on the power drive itself.  David McClelland proposed that mankind is motivated to action by three needs and one of these is the need for power, over others. McClelland used the shorthand ‘ nPow ‘ for this. This signifies a need to make others behave in a way that they would not have behaved otherwise. The need for power (nPow) is the desire to have impact, to be influential and to control others. People high in nPow enjoy being ‘in charge,’ strive for influence over others, than for effective performance.  This theory accords very well with our observation of human life and is a valuable correction to Abraham Maslow’s more famous theory of needs wherein the drive for power was not acknowledged.

Given a personality structured in the above manner, a dictator will find e free flow of information anathema to his journey. Media thus becomes the first casualty. President Rajapaksa who already had incorporated under his control the intricate and vast subject -portfolio of finance found it very important to take media also under his control even though he had a pusillanimous Minister doing that job for him loyally before the take-over.  In steps, Sri Lankans have observed how, one by one, all media-both public and private- have since been strangled into shadow imitations of the real thing. Publicly –owned institutions like the Lake House, Rupavahini and ITN offered a walk- over. The private media operators had other pressures brought to bear on them and a carrot and stick strategy has been successfully employed for the latter. Free Laptops are just a small set of carrots. The ‘morning breakfast’ meet with media is part of the pressure component. President R Premadasa had a more blatant approach when he planted media men at media offices to suggest headlines. Rajapakse does it with a smile (the smile that chuckles babies in public) and that appears innocuous and easy to suck to.

An Opposition- proposed Act for Freedom of Information (FOI) was blocked by government. In a classic statement, President Rajapaksa stated that if anyone wants information he can come to him! The Freedom of Information legislation has proven effectiveness in countries like where I live-Australia. We observe how individuals and agencies resort to that mechanism and how careful therefore the government is to be accountable.

From the point of view of the citizenry this manhandling of communication is a tragedy as it keeps them ignorant most of the time of the other side of events. In  today’s context,  the Sri Lankan citizen knows only that Western Imperialists are at their door in the nature of the Geneva meeting; these ‘big powers’  are against us because we had destroyed terrorists; they are indulging in double-dealing. That’s how the information is set to flow.  Look what’s there is in today’s (10 March) editorial of the private or ‘independent newspaper, The Island:

“The Geneva circus is on with the worst violators of human rights in the world masquerading as champions of democracy. Perhaps, there is no bigger farce than this summit. The UNHRC is dominated by the West and, therefore, it could not be expected to act independently. It has become a kangaroo court in all but name………..What really prevails at every level of the UN is the law of the jungle and small nations are in the same predicament as rabbits and deer in a forest infested with predators.”

This is not the style of Prabath Sahabandu; maybe someone else trying to collect merit points. Dear reader don’t be misled, as the last few lines are not meant to describe what goes on in Sri Lanka. Look at the caption that reveals it all: “The Rape of Sovereignty.” Surely, the writer knows that even sovereign nations are not sovereign as far as having to abide by international law? National sovereignty is sovereignty for people and not for a ruling cabal.  If a ruler in an African sovereign nation was to engage in genocide can the international order ignore that ruler? No. Ambassador Ariyasinha, who is also quoted here (and to whom I once taught debating skills when he was at school), also talks in the same way but I can excuse him as he has a job and family to keep.

It is only the free flow of information that can keep rulers and public figures in check and prevent the latter from duping the public. Of course the media must be structured in a competitive environment and such competitiveness alone could act as an internal check on the potential for abuse by the media moghuls themselves. Also there must be a legal process in place to bring media abusers to book. Furthermore, government must not be allowed to release information pertaining to national security. In all these ways adequate controls can be brought to bear on the possible abuse by media. Fair enough.

Subject to such controls that are reasonable, media must flow freely if nations are to be free and really sovereign. This will help to keep government high -ups and the lower executive accountable to the community. An intelligent government should encourage a free media as this would drive its drivers to be better and more competent persons and would help the exit of the incompetent and corrupt. President R Premadasa, with whom I worked during my later times in the Public Service, was someone I knew who tried to use the media to get information about the performance of his far flung officials. Premadasa knew the art of management. He had the habit of starting the day by reading newspapers. There were no emails and Facebook those days. If something major has gone wrong somewhere he then telephones the supervising Head. Col. Wisidagama, Works Engineer in the Colombo Municipal Council, died of heart strain due to Premadasa’s wake-up calls.

The present President will have none of media criticism. He prefers to attack the messenger. A number of online websites, even mild ones like Colombo Telegraph, have been blocked by his government. There is talk that the President is having his eyes on the Facebook, too; but that’s going to be no cake- walk. President Rajapakse recently utilized the opportunity of a recent episode where a school teenage girl had committed suicide due to a love relationship of her’s having been flagged on Facebook. President warned parents about the Facebook. What can Facebook do here? Facebook is only a tool and, like a knife, it can be utilized benignly or badly. The problem with this unfortunate girl was the culture of shame with regard to sexual matters that she is surrounded with. Her Principal called her “wesi,” (prostitute). President should have tackled this root of the problem had he being concerned with the welfare of our future generations. But, then his concern was elsewhere.

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