By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government” – (US Supreme Court on Pentagon Papers)
If the Rajapaksas succeed in turning their ‘media ethics proposal’ into law,Sri Lanka will have her very own Minitrue (Ministry of Truth). And the role of Lankan media will be redefined, from ‘watchdogs of democracy’ to ‘lapdogs of the Rajapaksas’.
In the consequent Orwellian reality, it will be permissible for Mervyn Silva to tie a public official to a tree and Rohitha Rajapaksa to hammer a referee, both in full public view. But it will be impermissible for the media to report/comment on these (and other innumerable crimes and transgressions by power-wielders and their kith and kin) because that would “offend against expectations of the public, morality of the country or tend to lower the standards of public taste and morality”[i].
It will be permissible for Chinato build a power-plant using systems unsuitable to Lankan conditions and outdated technology. But it will be impermissible for the media report/comment on it, because that would be “criticism affecting foreign relations”[ii].
It will be permissible for Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics to attack churches and mosques[iii]. But it will be impermissible for the media to report/comment on such crimes because that would be making “derogatory remarks on religious groups or communities or promoting communal or religious discord which may affect religious and communal harmony”.
It will be permissible for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to fume and froth in public, against perceived traitors and enemies. But it will be impermissible for the media to call his outbursts ‘temper tantrums’ because that would be “obscene, defamatory, deliberate falsehood and suggestive innuendos and half-truths or wilful omissions”.
It will be permissible for the Rajapaksas to conduct a savage, unjust and illegal impeachment-offensive against the Chief Justice. But it will be impermissible for the media to report/comment on it because that would be “information which could mislead the public”.
It will be permissible for the military to engage in land-grabbing in the North and the East; or for the Ranaviru Seva Authority to submit a fraudulent audit report[iv]. But it will be impermissible for the media to report/comment on it because that would “encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which may promote anti-national attitudes”.
It will be permissible for the Rajapaksa Supreme Court to give punishment transfers to honest judges, en masse, or promote bribe-takers[v] but impermissible for the media to report/comment on it because that would be “contempt of court”.
It will be permissible for the President to lie about devolution, his CJ to lie about Prageeth Ekneligoda and his brothers to lie about everything from development to national security. But it will be impermissible for the media to call them mendacious because that would be against “the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislative”.
It will be permissible for the JHU and the BBS to incite anti-minority hatred but impermissible for the media to accuse them of hate-mongering because that would be “criticising, maligning or slandering any individual or groups of persons such as ethnic, linguistic or religious or such segments of the public”.
It will be permissible for Duminda Silva, his doctors and his lawyers to lie about his medical condition but impermissible for the media to question/expose those lies because that would be publicising “details of a person’s family life, financial information, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability and one’s home or family and individuals in hospitals unless it has a direct relevance to the public interest”.
It will be permissible to hail Mahinda Rajapaksa as the ‘Sun’, the ‘Moon’ and the ‘Universal Lord of the Three-Sinhala Lands’ but impermissible for the media to defend a minority-religion because it would be encouraging “superstitions or blind belief”.
It will be permissible for power-wielders and their kith and kin to resort to murder and torture, rape and white-vanning but impermissible for the media to report/criticise those atrocities because it would be promoting “atrocity, drug abuse, brutality, sadism, sexual salacity and obscenity”.
It will be permissible for the regime to impose economic burdens on the poor but impermissible for the media to report/comment on the consequent effects on their living conditions because that would be “denigrating the poor”.
The media will be free to hail the Rajapaksas and to ignore the stench of crime and corruption emanating from the ‘Miracle of Asia’. They will be free to rise to the heights to sycophancy or to plunge to the depths of apathy.
But they will not be free to ask who doctored the cabinet report on the kidney-failure plague[vi], to report that Sri Lanka has extremely high levels of cadmium (a toxic heavy metal) in rice[vii], to wonder when the President will impose some ethics on his law-breaking acolytes[viii] or to question why state enterprises which were making profits (Rs.32 billion) in 2005 made looses amounting to Rs.107 billion in 2012[ix].
The new Media Ethics will redefine all such reportage/commentary as unethical and illegal.
In the consequent drab grey media-scape, Orwellian ‘Reality Control’ will reign.
“All of us always approve what the Führer does”, proclaimed Hermann Göring[x]. A version of this will become the new operational principal of Lankan media – it will resound with hosannas for the Rulers and their acolytes, invectives for regime-opponents and silence about everything else.
Everyday, in everyway everything is getting better: that will be the message of every media outlet, public and private.
The category ‘emerging democracy’ is a familiar one. But there is another type of country, one which is experiencing an antithetical form of transition, from a democracy to a non-democracy, a country which can be deemed a retreating/submerging/dying democracy. Sri Lanka belongs in this category. Sometimes these transitions can be halted before they become structurally entrenched; sadly Sri Lanka reached and breached this point with the 18th Amendment. Once the Independent Commissions were turned into presidential appendages, presidential powers were enhanced and term-limits removed, the narrow and rugged path to familial autocracy became a super-highway.
The next task is to create an unthinking, unresisting, apathetic populace; this necessitates a submissive media.
According to a new study by the MichiganUniversity, “countries with higher levels of press freedom enjoyed better environmental quality and higher levels of human development, both of which also contribute to life satisfaction (due) to the watchdog function of the press, which helps expose corruption of all levels in a community”[xi].
The nuclear spill-over from Japan’s Fukushima plant is reportedly creating mutant-butterflies. The Fukushima disaster could have been minimised if the operating (private) company did not subvert safety measures due to greed. But in open societies such criminal deeds become known; they cause mass outrage, compelling authorities to implement correctives. In closed societies state (and favoured private actors) can minimise information-leaks and repress any expressions of outrage, thereby rendering the adoption of corrective-measures unnecessary.
Without a free and critical media, the citizenry cannot be per-warned or informed about disasters. People will be free to live and make merry on the slopes of Vesuvius, ignorant of the gathering fire beneath their unconscious feet.
[i] The draft Media Ethics proposal – Daily Mirror – 5.6.2013
[ii] The Sunday Times – 29.1.2012
[iii] The latest such incident is the attack on a church in Angulana. http://colombogazette.com/2013/06/08/no-arrests-over-church-attack/
[ix] Island – 3.6.2013
[x] Quoted in “The German Dictatorship” – Karl Dietrich Bracher
[xi] Tree Hugger – 6.8.2012