By Niresh Eliatamby
(The writer is a journalist with 17 years in newspapers, radio, television, wire services and magazines. He was Correspondent for The Associated Press (AP) for 5 years, and has given lectures and written research papers on journalism in Sri Lanka at international forums)
I was rather surprised at the public statement by the Minister of Mass Media & Information that only those who have been granted Media Accreditation Cards by the Government Information Department are considered by the Government of Sri Lanka to be journalists.
I believe the Minister has been misled on the origin of this card. As one who was present at the time the decision was taken to begin issuing this card, I thought I would enlighten him on the reason for its existence.
In the year 1991, media freedom was under severe attack by the government of President R. Premadasa. A large number of journalists had fled the country following the brutal abduction, torture and murder of well-known journalist Richard De Soysa by persons who were positively identified as being members of the Presidential Security Division. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party, of which I believe Minister Yapa is a member, was in the forefront of protests on behalf of the media.
Hard on the heels of Richard’s killing, President Premadasa issued a directive to all government ministries and departments that no government official should speak to the media without the written permission of the President himself. I recall this well, since several Ministers of the then government and Secretaries of Ministries told me so when they turned down my requests for interviews. It was another hammer blow to media freedom.
This matter was raised at a Cabinet Media Briefing held at the Gramodaya Centre. The Cabinet Spokesman at the time, Hon. Ranil Wickremasinghe, denied that such a directive had been issued. Journalists present, who included members of the newly formed Free Media Movement, then raised the subject of access to government premises such as Ministries, complaining that they were being turned away by security guards at the gates to such institutions. The Hon. Wickremasinghe asked whether the business cards of journalists were not being accepted, and was told that very few journalists carried business cards, and that those who did found that they were not accepted.
The Hon. Wickremasinghe then asked what the media wanted done, and one journalist (I do not recall who it was) suggested that a Media Identity Card be issued. Another journalist suggested that it carry the government emblem. Yet another journalist suggested that it should be issued by the Government Information Department. This matter was then discussed by all present, and a consensus arrived at.
I recall that it was decided that applications for the card would be strictly voluntary. Journalists could apply only if they wanted to. There were a few older journalists who, having done without such a card for many decades, felt it would be a bit of a nuisance to have to apply for a card, and then carry it around.
After many delays, the card was issued in 1992. I was one of the first recipients of the card. In fact, I still have that card with me at home, and dug it up to take a look at it. I look a lot younger then!
It can be clearly seen that the Media Accreditation Card was an instrument of inclusion to facilitate and assist the work of journalists. At no time was it proposed that the same card should be used as a method of exclusion. It is not a license. It is a tool to help journalists. The card has not been entirely successful, since many government officials still refuse to recognise it, notably members of the armed forces and police. However, as we Sri Lankans say, it is better than nothing.
I myself have been in the media field for 17 years. For most of those years, I have been granted a Media Accreditation Cards by the Government Information Department. However, in some years when I was not on the staff of any media institution, I did not receive a media accreditation card. This does not mean that I stopped being a journalist! I am presently a freelance journalist, a profession and designation that is accepted the world over.
I trust that the Minister will withdraw his statement on the Media Accreditation Card being the basis for defining who can and cannot be a journalist.
The Minister’s statement now disenfranchises my right to call myself a journalist, simply because I am not affiliated to one media organisation for the purposes of the Government Information Department. After 17 years in the media field, this comes as a rude shock.
I wonder what I should call myself now?