Colombo, Human Rights, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Attacks on Media

“What’s going on just now? What’s happening to us? What is this world, this period, this precise moment in which we are living?” –Michel Foucault

Two incidents that happened within a period of 48 hours signified a major blow to media freedom and democracy in Sri Lanka. In the first incident, the main complex of Sirasa TV was attacked and its equipments were destroyed. According to reports, this attack was carried out by about group of 20 armed persons. The second incident that happened in day light on busy road in a Colombo suburb was the killing of Lasantha Wickramathunga, the editor of Sunday Leader by unidentified gunmen. All circumstantial and historical evidence has made me feel that these cowardly attacks were carried out by a group of people who have the backing and the blessings of the government and the government machinery. Sirasa media people were attacked many a time by a Minister of this Government. There were reports in the last 12 months period that the printing press that printed Sunday Leader was burned and there were death threats to Lasantha Wickramatunga. The leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickramasinghe, who knows quite well, may be through his own experience, how these government machineries works in killing and harassing its opponents, indicated in his statement to the Parliament that the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga would have been a job of the section of the security forces. Media Minister announced that the President had ordered an ‘independent’ and impartial enquiry to the killing.

In Sri Lanka, we do not trust ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ investigations for two reasons. First, these ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ investigations in the past failed miserably to uncover the truth and to find the perpetrators. Still people in this country are not aware who killed Sydney Zoysa or who killed the editor of an unknown newspaper whose name I do not remember although I used my Ravaya column to condemn it at the time of his assassination. We all have our guesses. Secondly, there is no mechanism to appoint those ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ investigating bodies by independent institutions. The Seventeenth Amendment to the Second Republic Constitution of 1978 enacted in 2001 provided provisions to give those investigating agencies at least some resemblance of independence. This piece of legislation is still inoperative. I am certain of one thing: if the Government or at least section of it is behind these heinous and cowardly acts, nothing will come out from the investigations. May be, investigation would reveal something if and only if the Government’s conspiracy theory is true. Since the issue of conspiracy theory comes up, I should say something about two main explanations about the two events. The spokespersons of the Government have noted that at a time when the Government was so popular because of the military victories in the East, Mannar and Vanni and the capture of the LTTE ‘capital’ Kilinochchi, the Government had no reason to fear media criticisms how harsh they would be. According to this argument, governments disrespect media and harass media people only when the governments are unpopular and cannot withstand criticisms. Of course, there is a grain of truth in this argument. However, it suffers from two major flaws. First, politicians are quite clever when it comes to the issue of guarding their power. They know very well that the popularity experiences up and downs; ebbs and flows. Attitudes of the public change instantaneously. Winston Churchill was defeated at the election held immediately after the World War 2. Hence, the politicians may feel that the criticisms should be silenced when they are strong and popular. Chinese Government was not generally unpopular when it decided to suppress Tienmann Square protest. Secondly, the politicians who have shown authoritarian tendencies use gradually and on incremental basis governmental technologies to tighten their control over ‘subjects’. Hence, the suppression of media freedom is a part of a bigger project. This second aspect has been taken as the point departure of the argument of the opposition. According to them, the government is planning to use the military victory in order to strengthen and establish its position by tightening its control over the activities of all the independent institutions. Military victory of the government would reestablish the state’s monopoly of coercive power as it unarmed its main contender, the LTTE. However, on the other hand, the government may not be able to use war propaganda for its benefits when the war came to an end with the LTTE suffering a comprehensive military defeat. So, it has to use other ‘technologies’ in the South to maintain and tighten its control. Joint opposition has a valid explanation and the way in which the government is operating have already shown authoritarian tendencies.

However, the main opposition front is to prove its credentials. What would be the guarantee that the opposition when acquiring power at a future date will act differently? S B Disanayake, the UNP chief minister candidate to Central Provincial Council has made it crystal clear that the Sri Lanka needed a dictator. Ranil, Mangala et al may be ‘good democrats’ in out of office. But Sydney Zoysa was killed when Ranil was in power. The trinity of Chandrika, SB and Mangala, in my opinion, was responsible of killing a editor of a newspaper. This is a good time for them to show their either honesty and integrity or dishonesty and hypocrisy. Can they come forward and tell us why those media people were killed, and what governmental machineries or subterranean machineries were used in killing media people and harassing media in general. Such a revelation would be of educational value to understand governmental technologies of control and coercion in an underdeveloped context. Moreover, in future, if there will be an investigation on a similar issue by an independent body, such knowledge would also facilitate its work. Will they come post factum with the truth? I have my doubts.

Attack on Sirasa and killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga have made me convinced once again my earlier proposal that any protest and opposition to the present government should be a part of a bigger political exercise aiming at naming a non-party peoples’ candidate with minimum transitional program that include the change of the constitution in order to make the state more accommodative, power-dispersed and the politicians more accountable through built-in checks and balances. In case, as in the past, if the energy and time spent on resistance to present regime is oriented and confined only towards a regime change, such exercise will definitely be an utter waste.

The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya. E-mail: [email protected]