Colombo, Media and Communications

Media, Civil Society and Social Mobilisation

by Arjuna Ranawana[i] and Anupama. M. Ranawana[ii]

Think to that place that this country has now come to, – the chaos of impunity, the failure to protect human rights and the hysteria of nationalism;  It is a moment, we must understand in which we pause and reflect. Something has ended, it must be grieved well and then what must be created after must indeed be a result of deliberate and well planned progression, not of fractured regimes.

In the creation of a state and of a political space, one reflects constantly on the relations of power and the nature of power itself. At the very least, it is an area that has become an unending point of discussion for many of us engaged in writing on the situation in Sri Lanka.  In a previous deliberation made by one of these writers and featured on this very website, a few exploratory thoughts were made on the idea of state building (state as functionary not state as nation, mi) and the possibility of regional integration, touching ever so slightly on the importance of the knowledge structure. This piece today, in part, furthers this examination, tying it to the question of power.  Over the course of many informal discussions through the years, these two writers have reflected critically on this question: what legitimates power?  With much of the discussion centring on the creation of knowledge and the permeation of ideology, there has been also a back and forth on the rationality of the media in Sri Lanka. As we are asked to reflect here on the future of the media, and of the strength of journalism in these times, we make comment on dissent, power and the function of the media and civil society in Sri Lanka.

Indeed, the remarkable success of the Rajapakse regime has been its ability to control the forces of power to the extent that it appears to be completely unchallenged to the ordinary media consumer; except in the recent heady days of the resignation of Defence Chief General Sarath Fonseka.   However never before – even through the so-called darkest days of the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV) inspired terror and government counter terror of the late 1980s – did we see the stifling of all forms of dissent in Sri Lanka as it occurs now. Today impunity is the catchword. And that impunity comes because no opinion challenges what the President and those close to him have to say. During those horrific uncertain times of the 1980s, there was some space for mainstream private media to report much of what was going on and voice dissent against President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Not now, no way.

Consider the reputation that Sri Lanka’s Security Forces have at present. They defeated the formidable militancy of the Liberation Tigers of Thamileelam, and appear to be dismantling its’ intelligence networks efficiently. The media is cheer-leading this achievement endlessly. But few ask the question why such an efficient force cannot find the killers of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga and the goons who beat up media activist Poddala Jayantha and other media professionals. One startling indication of how cowed the media is, was when a Sirasa News1st video cameraman was allegedly manhandled in front of other media by non-Cabinet Minister Mervym Silva at an event at the BMICH, Sirasa notably did not report the incident.

How this has been achieved has to be examined.

Much of that lies in the faulty ownership structure of the media in Sri Lanka.

The news media in the country is owned either by the government or big family controlled businesses.

The government is the biggest owner of popular media. The state runs and owns most of the electronic media in the country covering the whole island – SLRC, ITN, SLBC and Lakhanda – as well as the biggest publisher via Lake House. No private group comes close to that in terms of sheer resources.

In government media, successive governments have made sure that those who rise to control newsrooms toe the line and not exhibit talent, integrity and mastery of their craft. At the decision making levels of all the state media are these men and women whose salaries are paid by the people of Sri Lanka but serve only their political masters. As governments change these people change as well ensuring that the message stays tightly controlled.

One excellent example is how the message of the GSP+ issue has been successfully distorted. The reconsideration of the concession by the European Union is based almost purely on the human rights record of the Rajapakse regime. However, ask an ordinary Sri Lankan and specifically a garment industry worker, and you will be told that this concession is being withdrawn because of an international conspiracy by people supporting the LTTE.

Such is the power of state-run media.

It is a remarkable achievement that two private companies have attempted to challenge this dominance. The Wijeya Group actually sells more newspapers than Lake House and the MTV/MBC group probably draws more listeners and viewers. The other big powers in print are the Leader Newspapers and Upali Newspapers. All these also have business interests outside the media, as do the other smaller media houses (in terms of readership/viewers and listeners) and given the extent of the control the government has over the general economy cannot survive without doing business with the state.

And therein lies the weakness of efficient independent private media. The government needs only to cut a deal with this handful of powerful big time media magnates to keep anything out of the press and off the air-waves.

Intimidating reporters and media activists is even easier.  Ruthless violence and branding them traitors has rendered them powerless,

The journalistic community and media activists who have consistently called for a free press and the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, continue to be brow-beaten. These safe guards  would ensure the freedom of expression of all citizens and hopefully contain corruption and impunity by sate actors., The recent statement by Chief Justice Asoka de Silva that Sri Lanka should introduce the Freedom of Information Act, to ensure transparency is heartening, and it is hoped that he would take the lead in pushing for its implementation. Perhaps the media has not served ordinary people and served only the powerful actors in government and business and therefore the people don’t care anyway.

But are we, perhaps, forming too simplistic an argument and laying the burden of the failure of the state media for its creation or manipulation of knowledges?  If the broader remit is to understand the legitimization of power in the process of nation building, then the obvious objective is to isolate and concentrate on that voice or voices which arise as dominant- in a period where a country (semi-developed, fractured politically) is within grasp of a moment of historical change and social renewal, what will form the cement for sustained rule? If we easily slice society as political society, economic society and civil society we can find pockets within each from where a dominant voice emerges.  A more complex notion would be is to think of it on the levels of socially realised identity, via such sociological labels as elite and counter elite. But consider this, that the analysed group moves outside from the consideration of being a ‘class’ and is a ‘caste’, this stops economic/capitalist and thereby institutional analysis. In other words, does the critique rest its eyes on the failure of civil society as a whole? Academia has found a space to ridicule the international community’s involvement in the Sri Lanka’s process. But what of that area that stands ‘between the economic and the political’? What of the intellectual – the thinking- in our society?

The argument here is that, yes, we can look to the faults and the failure of the media and also to the oppressive nature of the present government’s rule to critique the dissemination of knowledge and the hold on popular culture. This would be an easy and simplistic angle to approach the issue from. However, if we are looking at this in its totality, we must examine the role of those of us involved in the entirety of civil society. We are not disregarding the tireless campaigns of those involved in the fight for justice, liberty and human rights in Sri Lanka. What we are focusing on, is the lack of popular organization from their point.  Civil society and the state are imbricated within one another.  This we do not deny, on a functional level there is a strong association.  On an ideological level there is great distance, and the idea of civil society  as understood in the European model – and we cannot deny that we use such Western paradigms-  is such that it performs the checks and balances to the ruling administration.

What we have said is no new argument, nor is it novel to argue that there is a space for change and for much needed improvement in post-war Sri Lanka.  Consider though, that this is change that must come from critical reflection and that we must look to civil society (media, NGOs and what have you) and the intellectuals that have formed within them to continue their fight to bring this change. No voice on the margin can be heard unless it is organised and articulated in a formal space, and for it to be formally organised it is essential that the ‘informed and thinking’ associated to this voice exercise their particular function.  Consider also that there is great economic wealth, and political capital in the hands of a nationalist ‘counter elite’ in Sri Lanka who have been organised and consolidated under the stewardship of their intellectuals, notably the JHU and the Buddhist monks. (A description of this we need not go into at this point).

However, note the comment above on the failure of the media and the dissemination of knowledge. A fair criticism, but, what it shows up is that, successfully, a nationalist sentiment has been tapped into and this has been done through keen and focused organisation and strategic approach.  The thinking and informed in civil society in Sri Lanka are preaching and spreading knowledge, but repetitively in the same spaces. The arguments and sermons they create are valid and crucial to post war reconstruction but are placed in too lofty and inaccessible a space.  There is no reach into popular understanding and there is no associational linkage; what does exist is a lack of social mobilisation.  Social change and renewal cannot occur unless there is mass movement, and unless there is organisation at every single level.

An example from the nationalist movement has been placed in front of us. How will we answer to it?

[i] Arjuna Ranawana lives in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached for comment on [email protected]

[ii] The views expressed here are those of the author (s) alone and do not reflect those of any individual or institution that he/ she are affiliated to.