Colombo, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict

A malicious “patriotism” and its impact on media and journalists

Journalists in Sri Lanka are trying to recollect whether they had a worse time under the regime of President Ranasinghe Premadasa when during the height of a crackdown on a JVP insurrection many media personnel were killed or simply disappeared, or if the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is moved ahead of that dark era and is fast creating a special niche for himself as the biggest suppressor of whatever media freedom is there in this country.

Journalists in Sri Lanka have to admit, especially those in the private media that how much ever we may like to fool ourselves into believing we are truly “independent” journalists, this is far from the truth. All journalists have to work within limits and it is the interests of big businesses who come in the guise of advertisers who really decide where journalists should get off. But that does not mean we cannot preserve at least this level of freedom that we have to write and in turn safeguard the right of the citizens of this country to have access to another point of view than which the government wants to force down their throats.

Getting back to what I started out with, I talked to several journalists who lived through that Premadasa period and are still practicing journalists; the majority is of the view that journalists in this country have never had a witch-hunt of this magnitude launched against them as under the present regime.

For a President who during the late 80s /early 90s was one of the strongest advocates of human right and media freedom, nothing could be more shameful. In the last Presidential polls that brought him to power, President Rajapaksa portrayed himself as media friendly and exploited the good will he generated among media personnel to his full advantage to help his rise to the highest position in the land. Sadly less than three years into his six year term, he seems to have forgotten much of that and other than paying lip service to upholding media freedom and holding proper inquires into attacks against media personnel and institutions,  done little to stop the escalating attacks on journalists, both in the state and private  institutions.

The Government’s official Defence website devotes much of its time and effort to slander and label media personnel who do not toe the official line as “LTTE agents” and have no qualms about calling them traitors.  In its latest article titled” Deriding the war heroes for a living – the ugly face of “Defence Analysts” in Sri Lanka”, the article concludes ,”The Defence Ministry expects all the responsible media professionals to comprehend that soldiers are in a noble mission; i.e.: to rid the country from the scourge of terrorism.  Thus, the Ministry does not find any other word better than a “Traitor” to call whoever attempts to show the soldiers as thieves or fools by making false allegations and raising baseless criticism against them.”

Which in other words means that any sort of misdeeds done by members of the armed forces needs to be kept well and truly swept under the carpet as such exposure would demoralize them.  Why didn’t the pundits at the Defence Ministry realize that it is the extravagances and waste and corruption by a handful of people in the military that is demoralizing the men and women who serve in the military and not the writings of journalist? It is a well known fact that whatever corrupt practices that take place in the military are done at higher level, while the majority of the men and women who serve in the lower ranks and who are the majority of these who put their lives on the line in this on going war, have no hand in these unsavorily acts. It is they who are disgusted by what their own senior people do and are supportive of journalist who exposes corruption in their organizations.

For the Government which is facing  crisis on all fronts,  economic, social  or political, using journalists as  the scapegoat to cover its sins may help in the short terms but the long term repercussions will far more serious. By crippling the independent media, the government is also effectively stepping on the fundamental rights of the people of this country guaranteed in the Constitution. If every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech and expression including publication, how constitutional is it for the Government to use the pretext of its quest to achieve an “honorable peace” to terrorize journalists? With no sane voices to be heard in this government, it will be those with their misguided notions of patriotism who will be crying for the blood of more journalists who will be heard loudly.

  • Malinda Seneviratne

    Are journalists agenda-free? And if not, are they absolutely free of guilt in the matter of complicity in the LTTE project? Have these above-suspicion saints never once taken pleasure out of LTTE attacks just because it hit directly or indirectly those whose politics they disagreed with? I saw the editor of one Sunday English newspaper giving a thumbs-up sign to Balasingham. I saw the editor of another Sunday English newspaper visibly salivating at an (unconfirmed) report that the LTTE had attacked a major Army Camp (a no-story, it turned out to be). I have read hundreds of articles by self-styled defenders of media freedom who have argued for ‘surrender’ to the LTTE in not so many words; people who do not acknowledge the right of a state to defend itself. This is not to say that the Government should NOT be criticised that the operations should not be criticised, but there is a difference is being critical in order to make sure things are done more effectively and being critical out of malice. How does one assess ‘intent’? Context! History! People don’t write randomly; they write from political positions. Articles are often preceded by other articles, other positions taken regarding other things.

    A lot of journalists, especially commentators, operate as though they are politically neutral. In the very least, they should state their bias.

  • Alex

    Sri Lankan Journalists are highly biased. They don’t want to accept it.
    They are writing for their employer and not for the country. I agree completely with what is happening to SL – Journalists.

    They need to reflect back what they are doing. Forf politics and money, they are ready to do anything.

  • cash

    Malinda Seneviratne said,, Hi Malinda first of all you have to figure yourself out who you are. I am positive you live in the west earning so called western bucks and hide behind the eastern culture. What do you know about journalism, what do you know about the reporters. I live in the west too but one thing is sure, this government run by jokers are the sad government especially when it comes to freedom of expression. MR’s brother Gota-Pee is the worst culprit he is sending our men to the front lines without any training and when the foot soldiers loose ground, he attacks the media verbally. And mind you he is a US citizen, his citizenship could be revoked because his name appears in many of the human right violations. And Malinda if you’re living in the west hidden behind all those fancy stuff do not question the fourth estate of Sri Lanka. There are good apples and bad apples. Question the governments.

  • cash

    Follow up. This war is not war. This war is being prolonged both-sides because its a money-spinning wheel. Rationally look at this way, MR’s brothers and their close friends are involved in procurement. Do you think they are doing a honest job, they get their kickbacks. Ask Gotta-pee as to how much his home in LA. Ask Basil the racket the value of his home in LA?. Ask who is the consul general for LA, ask how did become the CG for LA after living in Florida. Ask MR whether his henchman in LA could face a decent interview with KTLA5. Ask MR who is paying for the LIMO expeditions, ask MR what has he done to promote SL in LA, ask MR who is paying his grocery bills, ask MR why should they an office at Wilshire BLVD paying 6K.
    DONT BLAME JOURNALISTS>

  • V

    Freedom of expression is paramount for a strong democracy. And that means, the freedom to state the truth; freedom to state untruth; freedom to be biased; freedom to condemn; freedom to say whatever you want to say. The public will decide what/who they want to listen to. But first we must have the freedom to hear them all (and that includes defence.lk rantings).

  • Jagath

    This article is [edited out]. Journalists should first think of their motherland specially when there is a war to protect her. Present day journalists are working to the agenda of their pay masters. they do not have principles. They should follow the media in USA & Israel.

  • Pravasi

    The situation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) is not different to other parts of the former British Empire. The only countries that are different are the countries like Canad, Australia and New Zealand. The majority in these countries are Anglo Sxoans. Unfortunately in others the powerfull are Indian imperialists and Colonists. The worst form of imperialism and colonialism in the human history wher colonial parasites have sucked off the hosts and still continue to do so. Take Kenya, KwaZulu, Fiji and the list goes on. It is time the victims realise their plight and fight back.

  • eeroppesinhaya

    Problem in Sri Lanka is all media organizations are politically biased. They write what political party think it is right (even it is wrong). Make up news are always there to attack existing government because SL political parties thing to bring down governments next day after elected. Every government has a right to rule withing its mandated time frame. Some media organizations support these narrow activities of political parties.
    Journalism is reporting as what it is. Make up things and add his or her view or their political party’s view to it not journalism.(They can write novels). Unfortunatly this is what most journalists are doing in SL today. All Reports should be updated later but what happen in SL is when authorities are acted upon a news item in good faith those actions are never report back to the media unless they acted badly.
    Journalists should think what they are doing is for the good of the country not the political party. Presently SL conflict has grown to to the final phase. Even a moderate should understand there is no way possible a settlement with LTTE as far as LTTE cannot compromise it’s stand of a seperate country. Only way out is to defeate LTTE in order to have a country to all of us to live. If politically biased journalist thinks he should write what his party needs at this time. He is nuts!!

    There are so many problems with this government but they are still with the mandated time frame and also we never get a government who fight LTTE this correctly. When we write we should be very responsible not to demoralize fighting heroes. They play with their lives while journalists play with only your pen. They are trying to make sure that everybody has a country to live. Isn’t that what we want?

  • Hermann

    Some seem to interprit Jurnalistic freedom is the ability to publish anything anyway without facts. Even in the US this is not possible. Dixie chics having uttered negative on Bush had to suffer consequences, and no one including the Seneators were bound by the guide lines not to stray too much away from the declared policy of the gov ernment. How did Bush and co pull the rug under the feet of Amarican People to go to war on WMD? Amarican media did cover the facts to enable these guys to do things beyond their limits. Anyway that is abuse of Journalistic freedom. However around the world there is a tendancy for so called jouranislts to favour rich and powerful over poor and less fortunate in reporting. Prbhakaran in his Hero’s speech last November specifically mentioned that he is allocating more money to buy jornalists from sourth to embarass the government. I hope MR government can get the right balance on this kind of behaviour by the journalists, either by condemning such persons and/or limiting their access to valuable information.

  • NdM

    With regard to the strain of comments which follow Malinda’s, I think the question is: how should media bias, lack of professionalism etc. be dealt with in a civilised society? if the prescriptive answer is: by abduction, torture and murder, then that is, I think, a terrible indictment on the values and culture that undergird the society. It is difficult to agree with the comments that assume Sri Lankan culture to be as decrepit as that.

  • I believe there is wrong-doing on both sides but it is abundantly clear that the GOSL is manipulating freedom of expression and thought in so many ways. They use “patriotism” and “security” as rationales to justify t heir suppression of views. There will always be those with damaging points of view, with enlightened points of view and those that fall squarely in the middle….point is ..it is our right to choose…not the Govts. There is such a huge conflict of interest when a government controls the whole information flow. How can one not see that? Especially when ministers and the president himself take criticism as enthusiastically as a 5 year old boy takes a bath.

    As for the press in other countries…the U.S…Israel…some often examples quoted? Are you serious? Well in the U.S. from my experience you can pretty much write anything, even tabloids in the U.K. have had to retract and apologize many a time for writing utter nonsense. I think the Dixie Chicks example was a bit out of context. They voiced their opposition to Bush, they are country singers and they found that most of their fans in middle America were supporters of the War, primarily because they had loved ones fighting the war etc… they were viewed as irresponsible and unpatriotic. The backlash was primarily due to the contrary views of the fan base. Were they prosecuted, abducted or killed for voicing their views? No? Did they consequently regain popularity and win a Grammy? yes

    Of course there is no press freedom in Sri Lanka as there ought to be…we the people of the country are barely free to think and act for ourselves. There is perpetually a hand forcing us in to a particular direction, whether we like it or not. The good ol’ invisible hand.

  • Janaka

    The Sri Lanka is full of journalists who try to discredit the government and destroy the war effort taking money from NGOs supportive of LTTE and UNP.
    This is the truth. There is no independent media in anywhere in the world. They all have their masters who guide them for their personnel and governmental interests. Name single one. Who are these so called FMM try to fool.
    We are in the cross roads of the war, We should all support the war effort. If there are problems in the forces there are institutions to complain like parliament. You do not need to write it all over the world.

    To show how free two media institutes are , AFP and BBC. carefully read few their articles and analyse them. You do not need a genius to see their bias and opinionated style.

    Understand, Present day, Media is a profession, There is nothing noble in it.

  • I agree with you Janaka. But all that said, it doesn’t validate the suppression of those views. As biased as they may be in different ways, it still beats a solitary viewpoint….that of the state. Conflict of interest as I mentioned in my previous post. At least with a patchwork of media …the diligent few can, as you say..read between the lines. Triangulation as it were…but viewing different sources/angles.

  • Malinda Seneviratne

    Dear Cash: I don’t live in the West. I’ve been writing to newspapers for the past 15 years and have been working as a journalist for the past 8 years.
    Dear NdM: I agree with you totally. My contention was, however, more about journalists and their self-image.
    P.S. to my earlier comment: These are not great times, but they are certainly nothing like 88-89; in terms of media freedom AND the right to live.