By Malinda Seneviratne –
Greetings to the organizers and my fellow panelists. I participate with the full knowledge that the organizers have been at the receiving end of criticism from all quarters, those I consider friends and those who would consider me adversary. I am aware, also, that friends and colleagues though my fellow panelists are, they roughly fall into a single camp. I am an outsider, in that sense. But I believe, still, that our commonalities outweigh our differences.
Media has a role in all societies. Media can be effective in a positive way and it can be destructive and divisive too. The pen, to use the old metaphor, is not always innocent. Pens are frequently agenda-driven and used in defense and in attack, by governments and those opposed to governments, those who want to protect regime and those who want regime-change, those who prop systems and those who wish system-change. It would lovely indeed if media was always pro-people, but in the real world media says ‘pro-people’ but by omission and commission act in ways that go against popular sentiment. Self-righteousness is cheap. Self-reflection, self-criticism, expensive.
Let us talk about media and Sri Lanka. It is not the best of times, ladies and gentlemen, let me assure you this. My fellow panelists will elaborate on this, I am sure. We can do an enumeration exercise but I think it is better to touch on the issues that are too often skirted around, again for politico-ideological reasons.
It is not the worst of times either. We’ve lived through worse. That however is no consolation. All it means is that we can get better. Today, however, technology has provided us instruments that can best the most pernicious of censorship mechanisms. We must understand, however, that technology can be used and abused and that technology can both minimize realities as well as inflate falsehoods. That kind of truth-cooking is not the preserve of governments. Indeed spin and twist can be off-shored and this happens frequently too.
Governments are made of politicians. Politicians are about power, wanting power, wanting to retain power, fear of losing power. Such people are wary of criticism. It doesn’t help when criticism is selective, partial, mischievous and agenda-driven. That is no excuse for censorship or stifling of media freedom. I firmly believe that while freedom of expression is eminently open to abuse to the point that it can trigger outcomes that are bloody and ultimately antithetical to the larger interests of the citizenry, it is a better proposition than its suppression.
In Sri Lanka, there is state media and there is private media. Then there is the internet and social media where self-regulation, ethics, responsibility, balance and other things we speak of when we talk about the media are nice to have but rarely obtained. In Sri Lanka, private media is not politically neutral. Major media houses are owned by people close to the President. Others are owned by people whose political loyalties lie elsewhere. It is the same when it comes to news and comment based websites. Everyone will try to claim neutrality, but few really are.
We all work within parameters of ideological orientation, institutional policy, outcome-preference and so on. I am sure my fellow panelists would not disagree. So how do we become better? How do we ensure that what we do is about truth and not about slant? How do we obtain integrity?
We are constrained by the fears, arrogance, self-righteousness and readiness to silence of Governments, state agencies, state officials, our bosses in private media stations (owners and editors included) and by our own preferences – the outcomes we work towards and the preferences for individuals, organizations and ideologies. Let us accept this reality.
We can talk past one another, we can be self-indulgent, navel-gaze, be selective and opt for monologues. We can dialogue too. We can protest, wave banners, carry placards, organize and participate in marches, submit petitions. We can take the risks of becoming pawns. We may win some, but we may also lose. We can also write. We can speak. We can be the media.
I believe that the challenge is not to find ways of improving the relationship between government and media, but to do our jobs to the best of our ability. The trick is not to limit ourselves to lamenting and screaming about the fact that we operate within parameters but finding ways to operate at the perimeters of constraint and push those limits outwards.
If things are to get better – and I believe they can – then we have to privilege certain things. Here’s a list.
Courage. Honesty – and this means being open about biases and preferences and a conscious decision not to pretend to be neutral. Creativity – for there’s always a way around and through censorship. Humility – because we are never perfect. Lasantha, who we are remembering here, was creative. Lasantha had courage.
Note – Re-posted after the event
Note – This content is removed upon request by Malinda; we will re-post tonight after the event is done’.
*Malinda’s presentation to the Sri Lankans Without Borders (SLWB) event on the Lasantha Wickrematunge Memorial Lecture.