Monday, May 03, 2010

Media and journalist conmen

By Ranga Jayasuriya - Four years ago, this correspondent happened to be in Male to cover the controversial hearing of Mohammed Nasheed, popularly known as Anni, the then Maldivian opposition leader who was facing charges of terrorism and was detained in house arrest. One sunny morning when his case was taken up, massive crowds thronged the court and the narrow driveways of Male. Protestors were peaceful, but Police simply didn’t like their presence. Police acted with impunity, baton charging, tear gassing and randomly picking up people, who were driven away in packed jeeps to the Maldives notorious Maafushi prison where they would be held in prolong detention under the draconian security laws of the atolls. The Maldives, those days, was a Kafkaesque nightmare.

I visited the pro opposition newspaper, Minivan news and journalists narrated endless tales of intimidation and confinement at the hands of the regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. They lived in fear. The State controlled television , TV Maldives, was sarcastically called TV Maumoon, a term which better reflected the coverage of the channel.

Sri Lanka was never the ideal place for press freedom. But, despite our inadequacies, I had that strange thought, that I worked in a paradise.
I interviewed Anni languishing in house arrest. He had a vision for the future Maldives -- that it would not deal with military junta of Burma and that it would look to India and Sri Lanka for friendship -- but, he sounded hopeless about his immediate prospects. His sentencing, it was thought, was pre-determined.

But, pressure kept building on Gayoom’s regime. One fine day, the frail old dictator woke up to the popular call and agreed to hold multi party elections. That decision marked the end of Gayoom’s regime - it was voted out.

Anni was elected president.Within a year, the Maldives jumped 53 slots in the world press freedom index to 51, four slots behind Italy.

I do not mean RSF’s index is the ultimate authority on press freedom, but, as for the Maldives, its meteoric rise in media freedom could not be discounted-though one could have reasonable apprehensions whether the Maldives could sustain those initial gains as what it is basking in right now is the spring of its democracy.
But, nightmares of Male have visited Sri Lanka.

Twenty three media personnel had been killed since 2006. Newspaper offices were attacked and television studios of dissenting television channels were torched.
A pro-UNP newspaper editor was killed in broad daylight and another editor was attacked with knives. Keith Noyar, the respected journalist of the ‘Nation’ newspaper was abducted and assaulted. Poddala Jayantha was abducted, assaulted and forced in to exile. Namal Perera was assaulted.


Taraki, the editor of the pro LTTE Tamilnet website was abducted and murdered. Another journalist, Sameera Lakshan was killed and his body was dumped on the roadside.

Government Minister Mervyn Silva went on the rampage in state owned Rupavahini. After his inglorious escape, over a dozen media personnel met with mysterious attacks; he is now being appointed the deputy minister of media.
Certain quarters of the government and military thought that it was their prerogative to tell media what and how they should write. When media personnel declined to comply they were labeled as traitors. Dozens of journalists fled the country.

But, one needs to distance oneself from the popular narrative: It goes as, that there is no free media any longer in the isle and that all the independent journalists have fled the country. Therefore, Sri Lanka ranks at the bottom of the list of the press freedom index among the countries such as Saudi Arabia and Somalia, well below Kuwait, and Singapore. Sri Lanka surely has a serious problem with its media freedom, but these issues have been highlighted— unlike Singapore, which does not permit private televisions to operate in the country or Kuwait, where criticism of the Emir is prohibited by law — because Sri Lankan press speaks out. Sri Lanka, irrespective of attacks on media personnel, still have a vigorous press and a culture of open debate.

In fact, institutionalized restrictions on media freedom in this country has gradually given way since mid 1990s when the private media was permitted to telecast news. Even before that, we have an activist press during the reign of terror in 1989. The only significant remnant of the state control over media is Lakehouse, Rupavahini and ITN, their conduct an affront to journalism. It is the liberalizing of those state media institutions that media activists should demand, rather than harping on an obsolete press council act. The Lakehouse and state television channels do greater harm to the spirit of journalism more than any other institutionalized restriction on media freedom.

Suppression of media freedom in this country does not stem from laws, such as in Singapore or Kuwait, but from the arrogance and intolerance of the political and military leadership.

Tolerance is an important element for sustaining democracy, but that was sadly lacking in the cohort of our leaders. That Gen Sarath Fonseka, who during his hey days in power lambasted nonconforming media outlets, has became a victim of a witch hunt of his former allies, after he fell out with the ruling cohorts is an indication that media is not the only victim of the intolerance of the state.

There had not been any case in this country of a journalist being jailed for what he wrote-perhaps, with the exception of Tissainayagam. Instead, there are countless cases of assassination, abduction and assault of journalists for what they wrote and what they campaigned for.

The law of jungle took precedence over the rule of law during the bitterly fought war and the resultant decay of law and order. But, had one expected this impunity to end with the conclusion of the war, it would have be naive. Journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared eight months after the defeat of the LTTE and days after he allegedly penned a story critical, in fact, slanderous, of a government minister.

Mushrooming websites

But, one has to admit that so called journalists in those mushrooming websites, which provide a heavy dose of unverified and slanderous materials have made the case for journalists further difficult. In the first place, those who write for those websites, funded solely for their role in slandering the government are not journalists per se; they belong to a particular breed of parasites who depend on their political masters.

The root of the problem in journalism activism in Sri Lanka— including the Sri Lanka Working Journalist Association (SLWJA) of which this writer is a committee member - is its inability to distinguish journalists from those second variety. Therefore, protests conducted in the name of press freedom of Lankaenews or any other slanderous website is in vain for none of the practitioners in the first place did journalism.

Such protests only exhausted energy. They were also viewed by the dwarfed minds who ran those websites as an endorsement of their brand of journalism. What is most disturbing is their scant respect for the right of reply by the aggrieved parties. It does not take much effort to instil those basic journalistic ethics in an averagely educated individual. But, when those watered plants at party head offices, overnight are promoted as journalists of the state media and of those libelous websites, such an infusion of ethics would be rather difficult.

When an arrogant and intolerant government, which is law unto itself - not figuratively, but, literally - set themselves against some parroting scribes devoid of any intellectual or ethical merit, that is bound to be an ugly encounter. Lankaenews owner Sandaruwan fled to the US after election, but only after slanderous journalism of his website led to disappearance of Pradeep Ekneligoda.

The government stands condemned. But, those like Sandaruwan have their share of guilt. We stand condemned for we looked the other way as conmen like Sandaruwan, were masquerading as journalists.

© Lakbima News

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