By Kusal Perera –
“This type of surveillance and harassment appears to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, which is a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced. Utterly
unacceptable at any time……….I urge the Government of Sri Lanka to issue immediate orders to halt this treatment of human rights defenders and journalists who face this kind of harassment and intimidation on a regular basis. More than 30 journalists are believed to have been killed since 2005, and several more – including the cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda – have disappeared. Many others have fled the country. Newspaper and TV offices have been vandalized or subjected to arson attacks – some, such as the Jaffna-based paper Uthayan, on multiple occasions. With self-censorship fuelled by fear, journalists report that there are articles that they dare not write, and others their editors dare not print. Freedom of expression is under a sustained assault in Sri Lanka. I have called for the right to Information Act to be adopted like many of its neighbours in SAARC.” – Ms. Navenethem Pillai, High Commissioner, UN Human Rights Commission, issuing a media statement on 31 August, 2013 at the media briefing held at the Colombo UN office, before her departure from Colombo.
This condemnation, this appeal to the government to halt attacks and threats on media even in a stronger voice, would have been very appropriate in early 2009, especially during the pre and post Lasantha Wickrematunge murder period and till the end of the 2010 elections. That early period was an extremely bad and uncertain period and it is true, very true, many journalists in mainstream media and a few who were media activists had to flee the country for life. All were not S. Rajan in Trincomalee or Wickramatunge in Attidiya, though. Nor were all Kieth Noyshrs or Poddala Jayanthas. All who fled were not possible victims either. That 2009 period was similar to the post ’83 July and post 88-90 period when every one who fled was not a Tamil Tiger under life threat and every one who fled was no JVPer being hounded after. That tensed period perhaps saw the last, with the still unsolved disappearance of Ekneligoda. Some of the recent exits thereafter were mere hyped cases with half told stories. Some who should have actually fled for what they wrote and still write, remained here as journalists, only to be blocked out by these editors and their owner/publishers.
Today, 03 years and 07 months after Ekneligoda’s unsolved disappearance, except “Uthayan” in Jaffna that continuously come under “unidentified” attacks in the most highly militarised and policed district, no journalist or media has that type of threat or coercion to “follow the leader”. It is too bland a statement to say there is continued coercion and threats on media institutes and media personnel even now.
Today, to say there is “self censorship” in media is to say the mainstream media is otherwise professional and independent. This is far from the truth. Far from reality. The mainstream media, including owners/publishers and the editors (English and Sinhala in particular) are with the regime ideologically and for perks, privileges and profits. That needs no further descriptions or explanations. Their monthly meetings over tea with President at Temple Trees show how meekly obedient they are. None of them individually or collectively have the professional responsibility to protest against attacks on “Uthayan” in Jaffna. They don’t have a professional responsibility and a conscience to say, obstructing of websites whether posted from here in Sri Lanka or elsewhere is totally wrong and violates Article 14 of the Constitution. No, they don’t belong to such pedigree.
The vast majority of employee journalists are also politically and ideologically with the regime. Far worse. Most in private media don’t even know what their terms and conditions of employment are and they are not interested to know them either. They are not even professionally organised and they don’t want to. In such a subordinate media culture, only a random journalist would want to peep into the chaotic situation here and report independently and impartially. That if the editor misses out on the content, or the publisher wants some pep up for readership market.
The few media organisations that are in coalition show, how the journalists are ethnically divided. Serious professionals would not remain ethnically divided that way. They don’t even work towards canvassing a membership for their organisations that remain introvert and controlled individually. The oldest of them all, the “Working Journalists Association” is just a mock association, never taking up any serious issue that would question the regime. All individuals leading these organisations don’t work on principles and professional rights, but on personal and sectarian agendas. This was amply proved when they refrained from even mentioning the latest internet obstruction in Sri Lanka of blocking “Colombo Telegraph”. Well, they blocked that in all their communications as well. Not even the Editors’ Guild have spoken out on such issues that could hurt the regime.
The Editors’ Guild today can only be seen when they hype their annual petty awards ceremony that even give away awards to members of their own panel of judges. They are never seen protesting against any issue that has to be protested against. The only time a few statements and editorials were written was when the media ministry secretary proposed a “Code of Ethics” for media. But then, it was also known the regime including the President was not even aware of any such draft. That was reason why the media ministry had to drop their draft code of ethics.
The serious and the main issue with the media today, is not the regime. It is the meek and backward mindset of journalists and their editors. Most Sinhala news papers have reams and reams of coverage that take their readers on wholly mystifying journeys with fake astrologers, soothsayers, occult practitioners and quacks of any trade. They keep making the society a collective of passive human beings that would not rationally think and act, but would go after any “super power” for all help and remedies. Imagine school teachers organising bus loads of their own school pupils to go make vows in temples to help them pass the Grade V exam. This unprofessional, irrational journalists are therefore responsible in thrashing rationality out from society for regimes like this Rajapaksa regime to thrive as democratically elected.
These are the types of journalists and editors who love to munch speculations and sensationalism. The latest insane and quirky comments of minister Mervyn Silva targeting UNHR High Commissioner Navi Pillai is proof how irresponsible and obscure these Sinhala and English editors and journalists are. In any civilised society, a responsible professional media would have written many editorials demanding the government make a public apology when a minister insults its own State visitor. A responsible media would have condemned in no uncertain terms the insulting and stupid statements by minister Mervyn Silva and would have demanded he too make a public apology. But here in Sri Lanka, the Sinhala and English media in particular is no such responsible, professional media. They thus went on hyping the stupid and nauseating statement by minister Silva, replaying and reproducing it with comments gathered from similar odd and cranky characters. That perhaps was not self censored. None with a sense of social responsibility would contradict me for holding these sensationalist Sinhala/English mainstream media, wholly responsible for creating this type of anti social, ugly political creatures.
This mediocre media today is a media that only talk of corruption without any mention of the top three or four in this regime. Talk of fraud in the public sector. A media that dwells on provincial corruption and crime with sensational reporting. We see today a media that tries to “balance the coverage” with a news report or a clip included on an opposition campaign. What then demands these journalists to go on self censorship, if they are not in Jaffna or Batticoloa ? Who needs to keep them under threat when they don’t even challenge the regime on serious issues ?
To keep harping of past issues that for some time could have had good coinage, is to keep one’s professional nudity unexposed. But that does not help cure the ills in our media.