By Malinda Seneviratne –
Recent events at ‘Ceylon Today’ have made waves in media circles. First and foremost, as a member of the small but vibrant English newspaper fraternity, ‘The Nation’ sincerely hopes that the newspaper will survive these hiccups and go from strength to strength in playing its part in the larger role of keeping the public informed and those acting against the public interest on their toes. That said, we believe it is incumbent on us to offer comment on the implications of the said developments for media freedom and the rights of journalists.
It is solely up to the management of media institutions to do what is believed to be reasonable and necessary in terms of stated mandates, hopefully without compromising general as well as specific ethics pertaining to freedom of expression. Reports in this regard clearly indicate that the Editor in Chief cum Director-Editorial Lalith Alahakoon was asked to resign for not toeing the line.
Now there are lines and lines and many kinds of ‘toeing’; all newspapers have owners and they do set the boundaries. They hire, they fire. Part of the deal. Legal. The deal however does not include ‘shabbiness of treatment’, especially to a very senior journalist and a man who helped launch three newspapers, ‘The Nation’ included. The prompt resignation of some senior journalists (including winners of awards for journalistic excellence) following the above directive shows loyalty to their chief (not necessarily a bad thing) and moreover amounts to a privileging of principle over personal gain (laudable).
Time tells a lot of things and we reiterate the hope that Ceylon Today recovers from these multiple blows. More seriously though is the conspicuous silence of the Free Media Movement on these developments.
There are pertinent facts which may have had a bearing on the FMM’s silence. First, the new No 1 (for all intents and purposes) at Ceylon Today, was a former Secretary of the FMM and was recently appointed as a Trustee. She has, like the current Convenor of the FMM, Sharmini Boyle, worked closely with NGOs. Secondly, Sunil Jayasekera, the current Secretary of the FMM was (perhaps still is?) in the pay of the paper’s proprietor.
More seriously, the FMM has been consistent in its call for editorial independence. The FMM has conducted programmes on public service journalism with other media organizations where subjects such as ‘Editorial independence’, ‘Owners’ Rights and Editors’ Rights’, ‘Solidarity Among Journalists’ etc were taught/discussed.
Sharmini Boyle, when asked to comment, said ‘We haven’t discussed the matter yet’. Sita Ranjani, another FMM activist and office-bearer who offers opinions on all things under the sun passed the buck to Sunil Jayasekera whose phone was (conveniently?) switched off.
The FMM has issues and it’s been well documented. One of the founder members and long-time Convenors, Sunanda Deshapriya was asked to resign from the Centre for Policy Alternatives for perpetrating fraud. His dubious handling of FMM funds warranted an audit query which he has deliberately sabotaged by refusing to furnish relevant project documents. The FMM later acknowledged that comprehensive investigation was necessary but said that the Rs. 1 million this would cost was beyond their means. I even offered to find the Rs. 1 million for this, but the FMM said nothing.
‘Saying nothing’ is not what the FMM does. ‘Saying nothing’ is awkward after all for an outfit that advocates media freedom and posits itself as a champion of freedom of expression. The FMM is ‘saying nothing’ here, which means that the FMM is an organization that really can’t handle inconveniences.
This is about journalists. It is about editorial independence. It is about rights. It is about transparency. It is about accountability (as per the FMM’s mission-vision statements). The FMM has a history of voicing opinion on all things right and wrong in the country, but they’ve kept mum here. It can’t be ‘some’ rights. It can’t be ‘some people’s rights only’. If that were the case, the FMM might as well close shop.
Whether all of the above is relevant to what’s happened and is happening at Ceylon Today will remain a mystery until the FMM spokespersons opens their eyes and mouths.
Until then, the silence will tell its own story. Rather, it will confirm an old story about the FMM. It’s called ‘Not what it claims to be’.
I want ‘CeylonToday’ to survive these upheavals. I want more papers on the streets and less journalists on the streets. That, in the final instance, does more for media freedom than two-bit activists whose silence is up for purchase.
*’Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’; his articles are posted on his blog:www.malindaword