By Malinda Seneviratne –
Media freedom, like all freedoms, is not something one can talk about in absolutist language. There are always caveats. There are always conditions. There are lines imposed and there are limits that come from within, the latter kind being two fold, those birthed by fear and those that are spawned by ideological or political preferences.
For all the rhetoric about absolute freedom of expression and objectivity in reportage and comment, the truth is that everyone defines for him/herself an operational comfort zone. There’s a lot of over-focus on pet peeves and a studious look-askance when friend or chosen ideology slips up. Those who disagree are probably blissfully ignorant or consciously deceitful.
That said, there is nothing to say that the freedoms that do exist are adequate or those that don’t are not worth fighting for. In short, things can always be better.
We live in a world that is made of surveillance. This world is people by humans and not gods. As such they are prone to error. Systems may appear robust but there never impregnable. ‘9/11’ showed us that. Wikileaks showed us that. There will always be people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. There have been and will be the likes of Bradley Manning. There will also be a Callum Macrae and Frances Harrison who in interpretive sleight of hand will string together fact and fiction, discolor by editing out context, frill with overindulgence in conjecture and such. Only an informed, alert and intelligent public can sift fact from fiction, weed out ideological and political insert, and get something close to the true picture.
We live in a country that was a veritable media freedom horror story. Those who are old enough or are interested enough about history will know what the 1980s were like. They would know what kind of media culture existed during the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. Few would not be aware of the constraints inevitably imposed by a war of the kind necessitated by the brand of terrorism unleashed by the LTTE.
These are better times. But times can be infinitely better, this should also be recognized. While facts don’t bear out the horror stories trotted out by those who want easy passage to greener pastures or are experts at manufacturing lie for bucks, it is also true that the post-conflict media culture has been marked subtle forms of control.
Several media houses have been purchased by persons close to the political leadership of the country. That’s ‘business’, and loyalty in commerce is related to tangible benefits. Politicians can be voted out, businesses can fail; the one does not result in the other. Loyalties change hands with regime-change.
There have also been instances of journalists being intimidated by politicians. Some have been beaten up. These violations cannot be laid on the door of the rulers, following the adage ‘innocent until proven guilty’, but conspicuous sloth and constituent hitting-brick-wall in investigation raise questions. The longer they remain unanswered the more suspicious of those in power one becomes.
Even if we lived in a free media paradise it is advisable to be wary, to be alert and to watch out for even the slightest erosion in freedom because things can change pretty fast. This is why a courageous, skilled and innovative journalistic fraternity, while important no doubt, does not constitute sufficient insurance against limiting maneuvers. This is why there are trade unions. This is why journalists should organize themselves.
For all this, if journalists themselves are short-cut wizards without ethics or integrity, look for person gain in the name of the collective, and are willing victims of all kinds of manipulators seeking to sabotage post-conflict gains, they do more harm to media freedom than the worst enemy of these very freedoms.
The Free Media Movement (FMM) has an excellent brand. It has, through the crooked deals of Sunanda Deshapriya and by seeking out and wallowing in a culture of NGOism where workshops, seminars, foreign tours and such fatten wallets, severely compromised the effort to secure freedoms won and expand the dimensions of these gains.
It is now clear that the Free Media Movement is a virtual half-way house for all kinds of charlatans, a meeting place for thieves, liars and other miscreants. Its dealings with Jacqui Park, Asia Pacific Director of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) are not shady; they are downright dishonest and amount to in-your-face fraud. When a person with the designation Park owns openly violates immigration laws with the full knowledge of the FMM and when the FMM Convener Sunil Jayasekera utters falsehoods to defend this miscreant, the FMM ceases to be legitimate. Sadly, this is not ‘new’. The Park-Jayasekera combine is but the current avatar of an FMM-IFJ combine ready to defraud, ready to lie.
Journalists don’t need such people to fight for their rights. Given the international stature that the FMM has secured for itself and considering the hanky-panky culture it has embraced, it has done and continues to do more disservice to media freedom than any government that wants to keep journalists under threat. Add to this the fact that other journalist organizations are either thick as thieves with the FMM or are fighting for a piece of the pie, the fight for media freedom devolves to individuals journalists.
It has come to a point where a journalist may well turn to the FMM or similar outfits and say, ‘please don’t speak for me, thank you.’
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com