By Malinda Seneviratne –
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s views on media freedom are two-faced. One, when in the opposition and one when in power. One sports a smile and the other a scowl. This two-facedness, if you will, is not Mr Wickremesinghe’s preserve. It’s part of the political culture. In general those in power mimic those they replaced and those who are replaced mimic those who replaced them. On most counts.
It is typical for the Opposition to champion media freedom and for those in power to curb the same, directly or indirectly. It is also typical for those in power, especially those who feel insecure, to vilify critics by claiming that they are serving the interest of ‘the enemy’ (variously defined of course). During the Rajapaksa regime those who criticized the government were labeled traitors in the pay of separatists or foreign powers intent on dividing the country. During the regime of Chandrika Kumaratunga critics were called ‘Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists’ or ‘war-mongers’. Today’s critics are called ‘Rajapaksa loyalists’.
So there’s really no ‘venasa’ (change) in Ranil Wickremesinghe’s occasional attacks on and not-so-veiled threats against journalists and media houses. Not too long ago he referred to a journalist as a dog and called for the control of certain ‘dog-media-institutions’ thereby clearly indicating that he’s moved from good-governance to dog-governance; quite unbecoming, especially for a man who his wide-eyed loyalists consider ‘a brain and nothing else’ (thanikara molayak).
“Last Monday’s Daily Mirror called for the removal of Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. I know the editor of the Daily Mirror. He once wrote saying I too should be removed from UNP leadership. We will have to see what we should do if he does not resign from his post. He is possessed by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Daily Mirror carried anti Tamil, anti Muslim articles. Now they want ministers to resign. We must teach journalists a good lesson.”
What was Kesara’s crime, though? Did he publish a news item where he craftily threw in a quote by some political maverick making a speech in an unrelated context, selectively extracting the line ‘Mangala should be removed?’ Did he write an editorial calling for the Foreign Minister’s removal? No. All he did was to publish a political commentary titled “Why Mangala must exit and Amunugama must enter”. The columnist, Dayan Jayatilleka, to be fair, makes a cogent argument for the Foreign Minister’s removal.
Dayan has his preferred political outcomes. His commentary is informed by the same. He is clever with words and he knows enough history, political science and sociology to make his conclusions sound like they are the only ones that are logical. There have been times when I’ve disagreed with Dayan, but on this occasion I concur with him totally. But let’s assume that he is way off the mark. Let’s assume that he is just making a case for an outcome that serves his political objectives. The fact is, however, that his is only a comment.
A comment, Mr Wickremesinghe. It’s free, Mr Wickremesinghe. He is offering an opinion on facts which he has not distorted. Weighted maybe, but that’s allowed Mr Wickremesinghe. You should know this. Editors, especially liberal editors, reserve space for regular columnists from across the political spectrum. Kesara gives space to people who are rabidly opposed to Dayan Jayatilleka and who regularly trot out what I would call nauseatingly servile pieces about your administration, Mr Wickremesinghe. I don’t know of any occasion when someone objecting to such views called him names and declared that Kesara would be taught a lesson.
What does Ranil Wickremesinghe want, I wonder. The entire media to come together and call him ‘saviour’, salaam him at every turn, sing hosannas and crack down hard on his detractors? Is that the ‘media freedom’ that this good-governance government envisaged, never mind what was promised?
Ranil has issued a threat in no uncertain terms. He’s basically told Kesara ‘Resign or else!’ He’s read the riot act and he has the riot police ready. That’s the message he’s given and not just to Kesara but anyone who dares question his judgment. Well, speaking of judgment, he was found lacking when he appointed Arjuna Mahendran as Governor, Central Bank. He did fire some shots at those who criticized Mahendran, ably supported of course by his loyal sidekick Lakshman Kiriella, the Minister of Higher Education whose judgment too has been called to question after it was found that he had appointed dozens of advisors with hardly any educational qualifications and even tried to justify the use of public funds to pay the salaries of these ‘party loyalists’. Ranil’s tirades did not stop the media. It did not stop commentators. Arjuna Mahendran had to go. At this rate, the call will not be for the exit of a bad-judgment-appointee but the appointer himself, Ranil should understand. Arrogance was a key factor that saw the ‘exiting’ of Mahinda Rajapaksa. This too he should not forget.
He says that the Daily Mirror has carried anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim articles? Maybe that’s how he reads and maybe that’s an indication of his ability to read, but then again others can say that the Daily Mirror has carried ‘anti-Sinhala’ and ‘anti-Buddhist’ articles. After all, the Daily Mirror gives as much or more space to anti-Sinhala and anti-Buddhist commentators or, if you want to be sweet about it, those who attack Sinhala and Buddhist extremists and slip in crass generalizations to attack the entire collective. Hasn’t Wickremesinghe seen any of these pieces?
Those who know Wickremesinghe’s ways will not be surprised at this manifest inability to stomach any criticism and especially calling his judgment to question. What might surprise a lot of people is the deafening silence of the bleeding-heart media-rights advocates who could barely hold their tongues at the slightest perceived wrong done to journalists. What happened to the Editors’ Guild? What of the Free Media Movement? What of their lords and ladies abroad who regurgitate their whines in international forums and fire off strongly worded missives to anyone who might be willing to listen? How about the rights-bloc (shall we call them?), those who cheered the yahapaalanists all the way? How about Dr Ranga Kalansooriya? How many such tirades from Wickremesinghe will it take for them to wake up or will that never happen because they are simple in pretend-slumber?
Let’s stop there. There’s no point doing the horage-ammagen-pena-ahana number (asking the crook’s mother about the crook’s whereabouts).
Let’s get back to Ranil Wickremesinghe. On the 16th of May, 2004 the ‘Sunday Observer’ published an article titled ‘Move over Ranil, your time’s up’. It was a political comment. It was an exit call. Wickremesinghe didn’t say a word. He didn’t call for the particular editor’s blood. He didn’t say ‘we must teach journalists a good lesson’. He was quite the lamb. He was in the Opposition then. Says a lot doesn’t it?
*Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: malindasene.