A mortgaged media! media!
The immediate outcome of the January 8 election has been a fillip to freedom of expression in the media, but behind the euphoria of the moment trails a three-decade-long record of a press under siege.
There may be a nostalgic colouring to this, but well into the 1980s it seemed there was a vibrant public intellectualism in force in Sri Lanka that engaged with the ethnic question in a reasoned, bold and fair-minded manner.
Scholars like Kumari Jayawardena, Karthigesu Sivathamby, Charles Abeysekara, Radhika Coomaraswamy, Sunil Bastian or V. Nithiyanandan and politicians of the calibre of Colin de Silva or Neelan Tiruchelvam sought to understand and bridge or transcend the deepening chasm of the ethnic divide.
But they did not stand a chance against those hell-bent on descending into the depths of the chasm and dragging the country into it. So, that cerebral era was quickly overrun and trod underfoot by the terrorists and killers of the military and the militant variety. Aerial bombing, suicide bombing, decimation of civilian populations put or caught in the crossfire, rape, abduction, torture, dispossession and uprooting of homes and families, intimidation and censorship ‘and a fluctuating but abiding fear of any or all of these’ pockmarked and vitiated society and everyday life in the island nation over the next three decades, in different ways in the dominantly Sinhala Southern Province and the Tamil Northern and mainly Muslim Eastern Provinces.
All this, apart from the last phase of the push to and final showdown of the decisive war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, which stands in an ignominious class of its own and has rattled the conscience of the international community for its excesses and human rights violations.
Through the protracted phase of the internecine struggle before this ruthless endgame, and even in the period after the LTTE was crushed and well up until this January when Mahinda Rajapaksa lost to Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential election, freedom of expression and independence of the news media were, almost inevitably and invariably, mortgaged to the dominant pumped-up sentiments of Sinhala and Tamil nationalism within the Sri Lankan state.
The self-exile of a clutch of journalists in nearby India or countries farther away flagged for international notice the manifest unfreedom in their homeland.
Of course, the Sri Lankan military which, egged on by Rajapaksa’s notorious brother Gotabhaya, had set out to infiltrate civil society, and even schools, with military nationalistic values before the family coterie was displaced along with the President has scoffed at these journalists living abroad and those at home who questioned the conduct of the war as traitors.
This is hardly surprising, considering that even the term ‘diaspora’, in the Sinhala understanding of the term, had become synonymous with the Tamils of Sri Lankan origin settled abroad who sympathized with the LTTE, even though there are scores of Sri Lankan Sinhala men and women working in the Gulf and other parts of the world, who would in the normal course of things come under that description.
Somewhat more surprisingly, though, some journalists who have by and large stuck it out in Sri Lanka through this trying period, braving the obvious dangers in practicing their profession, tend to rubbish the self-exile of their counterparts as driven by the lure of greener pastures abroad.
In a telephone chat with me from Colombo about the situation of the media since the political change in January, senior journalist Kusal Perera was rather dismissive about the brand value ascribed to the group in exile.
“Most of them didn’t have the threats that I had, and some of them are not even journalists,” he said, adding that while he did spend short spells in Chennai and Bangalore when he felt that the going was getting too risky back home, he chose to live and work in Colombo through most of the perilous period even though he had had, like some of his colleagues, the option of moving to Europe.
Perera does not join the general chorus of alarm about the threat to journalism, in the sense of the physical safety of journalists, at home. Maybe it was worse in the North, which faced the brunt of the conflict, and it was not as if there was no coercion, or cases of intimidation or abduction in Colombo either, but, he said, as the example of the fiercely independent and often virulently anti-establishment Sinhala broadsheet Ravaya edited by Victor Ivan shows, it was possible to pursue serious, even combative, journalism that mattered in Sri Lanka’s periods of emergency, which were most of the time, if one was sufficiently committed to it.
The dreaded white van that would whisk away a dissident activist or journalist, who was not to be heard of again, was real, not an urban legend.
But Perera seems to prefer not to harp on it and sees it as a traumatic fact of life in the 2008-2009 period, not since, although the fear it fostered continued well after.
He puts the blame for the plight of the unfree press in the country squarely on the fourth estate itself. The news media, he contends, are wallowing in mediocrity, lower than at any time ever before. They have become, for a good part, products of nepotism, crony capitalism and money laundering.
Most of President Rajapaksa’s cronies were fielded as his proxies to buy up a good part of the media. But for traditional publications like The Sunday Times and Daily Mirror of the Wijeya group, or the Upali newspaper group which publishes The Island and Divaina, most of the print media, including
The Sunday Leader of Lasantha Wickrematunge (who was attacked and killed in January 2009 while on his way to his office in his car), were taken over by Rajapaksa’s proxies. Cabinet Ministers or their families snapped up FM radio stations.
At the same time, much like in India over the last two decades, journalists’ unions had become effete, and casual contracts were replacing regular employment in the profession. Perera characterizes the media freedom thus obtaining as that of proprietors of this upstart press to toe the Rajapaksa line. This also seems to suit the dispensation in power since January, as it can point to the space and time its arch rival and former President continue to enjoy in the media as proof of the press freedom that has been restored.
But the implication of this suborning of the media, in terms of the political campaign for the parliamentary elections to follow, is obvious.
The confused and compromised state of the media reflects the current disarray in political alignments, which Perera calls “a unique combination of forces that could never happen theoretically,” with the opposition also part of the government, and opportunism rife in political parties across the board, run not by democratic but by “extremely bureaucratic personalized leaderships.”
Perera’s may be an atypical and anecdotal take on the impinging factors gnawing at the roots of press freedom in Sri Lanka, but he agrees with the rest that the immediate outcome of the January election has been a big and sudden fillip to freedom of expression in society and the media.
Behind the euphoria of the moment, though, trails a three-decade-long record of a press under siege: gagged or self-censoring or debilitated in one manner or the other; a dismal record broken only now and then for brief periods like under Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, who succeeded President Ranasinghe Premadasa after he was assassinated, or between 2002 and 2004 in the, again short-lived, government under the combination of Chandrika Kumaratunga as President and Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister.
It was, of course, the two insurrections by the ultra-left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in 1971 and 1987-89 and the long war of attrition with the LTTE since the 1980s with its flash points of deaths and destruction before the bloody finish that decimated the organization and its leadership in 2009 that manifestly set the stage for the abridgement of press freedom in the country.
But successive governments of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) have been intolerant of, and heavy-handedly impatient with, the legitimate adversarial role of the news media and used the continual state of emergency to keep free and critical expression at bay, thereby losing out on the sliver of an opportunity to leverage and empower the press to create a semblance of democratic normalcy.
The media for their part have fared no better and responded to the ethnic crisis along polarized ethnic lines – the southern Sinhala press buttressing the war effort and the northern Tamil press, like Veerakesari and Uthayan, countering what they saw as narrow ethnic nationalism.
A parallel narrative
Even coverage of a natural disaster like the tsunami of 2004, it has been pointed out, went on predictably north-south divided lines; the southern Colombo press spoke about the destruction and rehabilitation efforts needed in the Sinhala inhabited parts of the country although the bigger impact and destruction was in the north.
Interestingly, even as the objective conditions and subjective elements combined to keep critical media decibel down, there was a fascinating parallel narrative of initiatives from the journalistic community to counter the forces curbing it and to institutionally overcome its own inadequacies.
A good idea of how far the media are helpless, how far remiss and how successful they have been in heaving themselves out of the rut they find themselves in emerges in a just-published book, Embattled Media (Sage, 2015), jointly edited by William Crawley, David Page and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena -a compilation of articles by Sri Lankan journalists, media scholars and legal experts of high standing, among them, Sinha Ratnatunga, Editor-in-Chief of The Sunday Times; Amal Jayasinghe of AFP; the late veteran broadcaster Tilak Jayaratne; the communications specialist and columnist Nalaka Gunawardene; the legal experts Jayantha Almeida Guneratne and Gehan Gunatilleke; and one of the editors, herself a legal expert and activist, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena.
These various authors provide snapshots, from their respective angles and vantage points, of a series of measures taken to deepen media freedom in Sri Lanka which actually seems more concerted, sustained and potentially far-reaching than anything similarly systemic, or organized like a movement, even in India.
There was the Colombo Declaration by a meeting of stakeholders in the media sector in 1998 which set the agenda for decriminalization of defamation, and which was revisited a decade later to, among other things, enlarge its scope to include the ‘deliberative democracy’ of the Internet and social media.
Self-regulation of and by the media was provided a serious forum with the establishment of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL). (On the flip side, the PCCSL has little in common with that in India; its disciplining and punitive ways must, for a change, leave us happy and relieved that our Press Council does not have teeth.) And yet that the freedom these steps sought to engender eluded Sri Lanka, whereas it was by and large a freewheeling experience taken for granted in India, is a difference made by the conflict that plagued the island.
As Nalaka Gunawardene observes in his piece in the compilation, as “successive Governments asked Lankan public to tolerate the curtailment of civil liberties under Emergency Regulations. Over time, these restrictions created an entire generation that does not know what normalcy is.”
The publication of Embattled Media perhaps ran into a peculiarly bad timing because it went to press just before the presidential election of January and the unexpected change it has heralded.
Would the contributors be more forthright now than perhaps they were when they wrote what they did while the Rajapaksa regime, which at its most charitable was paternalistic to the media, was at the helm?
I raised this question with the editors. David Page responded that while it was true that “journalists are breathing more easily and handling topics that they were not handling before for fear of repercussions, the publication of the book has come at a very opportune moment because it deals with various reforms which have somewhat unexpectedly become practical politics after the election.”William Crawley, while conceding that “some of those who contributed to the book” were indeed cautious about lending their names to open criticism of the government, did not really think “that if the contributors were starting from scratch today, the articles would have been very different”.
Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena provided a ringside but tempered view from the ground when she said that “the environment for critique and dissent has opened up tremendously though there are some emerging concerns with this development.”
She goes on to elaborate the concerns: “The media, perhaps because of suppression for so long, has burst into full-fledged criticism of the new government which led to the new Prime Minister (unprecedentedly) using parliamentary privilege to name journalists and editors critical of its (sic) policies in Parliament. – This is not a good development at all.”
Again, speaking about the attempt to get a right to information law, like in India, enacted in Sri Lanka, something on which she has been working, she said, “There are concerns as to whether its liberal provisions will be diluted during the government vetting process.” So there are, she concluded, “some ambiguities and confusion in the process but (it is) certainly infinitely better than what prevailed before.”
These observations, read together with those of a sceptical Perera and the track record chronicled in the essays in the book, suggest that the current developments are open-ended and that it may be premature yet to uncross our fingers. The more things change, the more they stay the same?