By Rasika Jayakody –
Sri Lanka Press Institute last week organized a panel discussion on right to information where Kevin M. Goldberg, a general counsel of the American Society of News Editors, gave the keynote address. The American journalist turned lawyer gave some insight into the importance of right to information and the manner in which the Sri Lankan media should pursue it. His patronizing speech should be analyzed in the light of the recent developments arising from the NSA and Edward Snowden controversies. It was nothing more than a ‘pot-calling-the- kettle- black’.
Nevertheless, some insightful thoughts were also shared at the forum. In my view, the most important speech of the session was delivered by Manik de Silva, Editor in Chief of the Sunday Island. Being a journalist at the forefront of print media for more than five decades, Manik mainly spoke of the conduct of journalists with regard to freedom of expression and right to information in Sri Lanka. He asked whether the journalists who are fervent advocates of right to information have actually done their part in their capacity. He ended his speech saying “mea culpa” accepting the failure of the journalistic fraternity in making an effective approach towards ensuring right to information.
Media is gagged in Sri Lanka directly and indirectly, covering all bases of the media industry. This government, like all the other governments who governed this country after 1960, is geared towards suppressing media institutions that do not ‘toe the line’ of the government. The Rajapaksa regime may have taken it to another level by introducing a hitherto unprecedented formula of stifling media, particularly at the organizational level. But, it is interesting to see whether journalists, as a community, can distance themselves from the present trend of suppression and take the moral high ground, saintly vis-à-vis the conduct of the government.
More than 90 percent of the country’s media establishments are directly owned by politicians or the parties who have direct links to political camps. Have the journalists, as a community, worked towards breaking this trend or at least showing a collective resistance of some sort? The Island Editor raised another important point saying that most of the editors and publishers who often take part in breakfast meetings at Temple Trees only ask frivolous questions from President Mahinda Rajapaksa without giving voice to real issued faced by the people. Apart from sumptuous meals, Manik said, no important story would arise from such breakfast meetings. This also portrays the failure on the part of journalists to live up to the standards expected of them. When such a trend continues unabated, is there any point in blaming the Rajapaksa regime for circumventing legislative measures for right to information and for not safeguarding freedom of expression? After all, that was expected of the government all along!
This writer was among the several journalists who resigned from Ceylon Today, on principle, in protest of the arbitrary dismissal of its founding Editor Lalith Allahakkoon. Following the resignation, he was a member of an initiative that looked into the possibility of setting up a publication owned by journalists. The core objective behind the project was to rescue journalists from the iron fist of publishers who act as sycophants of powers that be. The ownership structure of the publication was something similar to that of Guardian, owned by The Scott Trust, a charitable foundation, which aimed to ensure the paper’s editorial independence in perpetuity, maintaining its financial health to ensure it did not become vulnerable to takeovers by for-profit media groups. The Sri Lankan project did not take off the ground due to practical difficulties and was viewed with jaundiced eye by many journalists who were vociferous advocates of right to information.
Sri Lanka has a long history of media suppression. There have been direct and indirect acquisitions of newspaper companies and sealing off media institutions. There have been competent authorities to emasculate media. Newspaper offices and printing presses have been burnt down from time to time and journalists have been attacked. This government, in that sense, is no different from all the other governments who ruled the country in the past and continues to repeat the time-tested tactics when it comes to muzzling the media. What we see today is nothing but a repetition – or perhaps an extension- of history that comes in fresh garments.
Another important question one can ask is whether media organizations and media activists have stepped out of their comfort zones to take a more effective approach towards ‘achieving’ freedom of expression and right to information. Such rights, in this part of the world, do not come on a platter and journalists should work hard to earn them. Media organizations have conducted workshops- seminars- panel discussions, formed NGOs within NGOs and staged glamorous protests demanding freedom of expression and right to information. Colossal amounts of money have been pumped in for such programs. They know ‘right to information’ is a distant dream and they also know as long as it remains a distant dream funding channels running to it will not lose their vigor. That is why no concrete effort has been made so far to change the situation on the ground.
At this juncture, it is important to realize that the biggest threats to media freedom and independence of journalists have come not from without media organizations, but from within. If journalists covet a change, or perhaps a reversal of the present situation, that should also come from within and not from without, whether one likes it or not.
*Rasika Jayakody is a Sri Lankan journalist who may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org