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

Attacks on the Media, Military Successes and Political Settlement: The Stuff on Our Plates

End of January 2009. The political situation in Sri Lanka has seen considerable developments through 2008 and especially during the month of January 2009. The main focus today is the war against terrorism, also described as a ‘humanitarian’ mission, intended at defeating the LTTE and it military might. On the management of the military forces and elaboration of military strategy, the Sri Lankan government has achieved considerable feats, and has provided the political and military leadership required to the execution of successful military operations. As Austin Fernando, the former Defence Secretary under the Wickramasinghe government of 2001, notes in his recently published book (My Belly is White: Reminisences of a Peacetime Secretary of Defence. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2008), the mandate President Rajapakse received in December 2005 implied the popular will for a different, i.e. military strategy in dealing with the ethnic conflict. After three years in office, it is clear that the Rajapakse government has promptly executed this task.

The BBC Sinhala service reported on 27 January 2009 that Ranil Wickramasinghe, leader of the parliamentary opposition, commends the government on its unprecedented military successes. The Opposition Leader also mentions the importance of a political solution to the ethnic question in the post-war phase. This air of military successes is coincided by a strange phenomenon, which is extremely harmful to the very democratic principles upon which the state is founded: murder, assaults, abductions, beatings and imprisonment of journalists and destruction of media establishments. A look at the turnover of events in the last few months provides ample proof that the primordial ‘freedom of expression’ has been substantially challenged in contemporary Sri Lanka. Repeated attacks on the media culminated with the assassination of Mr Lasantha Wickramatunga, the Senior Editor of The Sunday Leader. This was preceded by an attack on the studio complex of SIRASA, one of Sri Lanka’s most popular television channels. Both Mr Wickramatunga and SIRASA’s news team share one feature in common. They constitute, together with others such as the editor of Ravaya, a segment of the media that strives to practice a form of journalism that differs from the state-owned media and other privately owned print and electronic media. As far as Mr Wickramatunga was concerned, he represented a clear voice of dissent, in an effort to bring the unsaid, inside story, place a contrary view and a view of dissent before the reader. Considerable criticism has been levelled against his reporting and his newspaper, and does not require further elaboration here.

Recent attacks on media personnel have resulted in the expatriation of several prominent journalists, which (unless they practice their profession from abroad) is a severe blow to Sri Lankan journalism. The latest victim of violence against media personnel is the Editor of Rivira, a Sinhala language newspaper. One of the main questions that the politically conscious Sri Lankan citizen ought to raise is: ‘what could be the basis of suppressing the media in the current political context?” Easy as it may seem, this turns out be a difficult question to answer.

Journalists have been attacked and murdered in many countries around the world, and all such attacks are marked by unresolved mysteries and underlying political implications. The large majority of journalists who suffered that fate have been those critical of governments in power. Investigative journalists are highly vulnerable. In the present-day Sri Lankan context, understanding the repression of the media requires some thought on the potential threats that the media could pose to the existing government.

In an article published in a blog (“Lakbima Blog: A voice of reason from Sri Lanka”) on 6 February 2008 on SIRASA’s news bulletin the author strives to demonstrate that SIRASA’s presentation of news is rather flawed and partisan. The arguments provided are indeed convincing, and it is not my intention to contest them. The key point here is that the news bulletin on SIRASA News 1st differs from that of other Sri Lankan TV channels. There can be differences in the importance accorded to daily headline stories, the manner in which they are presented, the extent of impartiality, and ‘inclusive’ coverage (i.e. covering news items that concern all segments of the polity, including the parliamentary opposition parties, smaller political organisations and civil society lobbies). Regular unbiased viewers of SIRASA News 1st may agree that it is somewhat futile to see a potential threat to the state in kind of journalism News 1st practices. The government of Sri Lanka has amply shown the extent of its military capabilities and its commitment to protect the interests of the Sri Lankan state, and a media organisation that practices a different type of journalism should not be deemed a challenge by a government of that nature. Popular criticism levelled at News 1st however shows that a contrary view is widely held by a substantial number of Sri Lankans today. Over the last few days, News 1st videos have virtually ceased to appear on free Sri Lankan video websites such as col3neg and srilankantube.

Concerning Mr. Wickramatunga, he was not only a practitioner of journalism of dissent, but also an insider into the Sri Lankan political sphere. It is indeed a possibility that his close political connections and his outright opposition of the state’s military strategy made him a potential challenge to the state. Once again, the state is armed with strong assets including intelligence services, and it cannot be justifiably stated that the state is incapable of protecting itself from any form of infiltration or conspiracy. Preventing journalists who are critical of a government and the dissenters from working freely is a blow to both freedom of expression and the peoples’ right for information.

One salient factor applies to both News 1st and journalism of dissent. In any democratic state, the presence of media that reports news in different ways and from different angles is an essential component of democracy itself. The presence of News 1st in Sri Lanka is essential, as it enables the television viewer to come across a reading of events that differs from that of the other media networks. It leaves him/her with not one, multiple possibilities of interpretation of an issue. The same applies to journalism of dissent, which focuses on portraying the unsaid story. This may cause challenges to a government in power, which can be met with legal measures, the development of transparency, and in more delicate cases (such as national security and defence-related matter), by the official exercise of censorship. Silencing journalism of dissent by violence and murder, and destroying the assets of media institutions with a difference does not resolve anything. It goes without saying that whoever is behind such acts is committing an extremely harmful deed upon the people of Sri Lanka. If such repression continues for a prolonged period, it is bound to produce a people and especially a younger generation incapable of critical thinking, logical reasoning, and immature to appreciate and debate opposite viewpoints. People should be given the opportunity to come across a wide range of print and electronic media with different readings of events. In Sri Lanka, this can extend from state owned media to and private media such as News 1st, and elements of dissent. This variety encourages the reader/viewer/listener to think hard, and formulate his/her own views, instead of being fed on similar news items with converging ideas. Agreeing or disagreeing with any viewpoint is up to each individual. The In this respect, the Lakbima blog mentioned above is in itself a positive factor, as it shows how the author has formulated his/her own view on News1st by a dose of critical thinking. This may no longer be possible for Sri Lankans if different and conflicting voices are prevented from being heard in the sphere of journalism.

As the state and its senior officials have repeatedly highlighted, the military offensives against terrorism are to be followed by a deeply involved effort in drafting a political settlement to the ethnic question. This involves a deep understanding of the genesis of ethnic unrest in post-1948 Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Tamil grievances and the political aspirations of all other ethnic and political groups. This alone would enable policymakers to draft a settlement that responds to the requirements of each group. This is bound to be a long and tedious process, and a settlement should be strong enough to prevent the rise of separatist militantism in future. A valuable lesson learnt from pre-1983 governments ought to be remembered here: any consistent and extensive solution to the ethnic question is bound to be opposed by different groups including those upholding a Sinhala nationalist discourse (which has now developed into an institutionalised element in Sri Lankan politics and tends to constitute Sri Lanka’s influential extrême droite). This can also be explained as an inherent inability and/or unwillingness to consider, understand and appreciate the point of view of ‘the other’. It is in this challenging context that the presence of different views in the media becomes essential. It enables the voices of people with different and conflicting views to be heard, resulting in a vibrant and heated debate on peacemaking in Sri Lanka. Terms such as ‘peacemaking’, ‘conflict regulation’, conflict resolution’ and ‘conflict transformation’ should no longer constitute the frequently used terms of diplomats and those working for NGOs and think tanks. As it is epitomised by the advent of citizen journalism, issues that concern Sri Lankans need to be dealt with by all Sri Lankans, and every voice counts. Every argument and counter argument is important, and provides invaluable food for thought for the popular debates on crucial issues. This makes it essential to provide the space for conflicting voices to emerge in all its forms of media. Preventing this will inevitably prevent crucial voices from being heard, and will in turn have a negative impact on policymaking including the search for a political solution to the ethnic question.