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 inÂ Sri LankaÂ 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,Â Â done little to stop the escalating attacks on journalists, both in the state and privateÂ Â 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.Â Â 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.Â Â 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.Â Â 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 facingÂ Â crisis on all fronts,Â Â economic, socialÂ Â or political, using journalists asÂ Â 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.