Long Reads, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Securing Media Freedom in National Security States

“Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Benjamin Franklin.

“Necessity is blind until it becomes conscious. Freedom is the consciousness of necessity.” Marx

As Sri Lanka transforms from a welfare into a “national security state,” we are witnessing the worst suppression of media freedom since the time of our independence. Nearly thirty journalists have been forced to abandon their work in the face of unrelenting harassment, or imprisoned, tortured, exiled, or killed. Those media personnel who, in the face of this attack, have responded by inventing creative ways to maintain the freedom of the press, deserve our respect for continuing to operate under tremendous risks and constraints. These stalwarts require our immediate assistance if we are to secure our media freedom and ensure that Sri Lanka be a place for meaningful citizen- and social-journalistic praxis.

We must undergo a paradigm shift in the way we approach media freedoms: our efforts must stretch beyond the legal reforms that democratize freedom of expression. We must even go beyond seeking alternative means of circumventing censorship before those reforms are in place. Such a shift requires a deep and multi-layered engagement with both the direct censorship of the state, and the self-censorship imposed by many less dedicated media professionals and the organizations that they represent. Issues at stake in constructing a new paradigm include the questions of state power and its relationship with the nation and the capitalist economy; the economic and political bases and mindsets (e.g. ideology, morals and ethics) of journalists; and, the role of the internet as a means of democratization of freedom of expression. In other words, we need to frame the current debates about media freedom with self-reflexive criticism of the economic, cultural and political forces behind them.

Typically, the critics of media suppression direct their anger at the state, rather than challenging the concept of the nation and asking how and why the public’s beliefs about the nation are developed and mobilized to enhance state power. While there is no doubt that freedom of the media needs to be embraced and institutionalized by the state, blaming the state alone for the suppression of media freedoms, and relying solely on the state to institute reforms, is not the answer. For it is not the state alone that creates and enforces the mechanisms of censorship; rather, the attack is multi-pronged and involves many different stake-holders who exert material and psychological control over reporters and news organs, both globally and locally.

Those who criticize state media suppression often have only a shallow understanding of the state. They take the state as a given and seldom ask how it derives its power and legitimacy, assuming, far too simplistically, that they lie in an apparatus directly under the state’s own control. The state in turn helps popularize this assumption in order to mystify its real bases of power. In the context of contemporary Sri Lanka, though, the kith and kin of the President’s family are not solely responsible for media suppression, because the source of their power lies not only within the family, but is diffused through the greater society. To say that people are totally helpless is to say that they absolutely have no autonomy vis-Ã -vis the government. Are all those who cast their votes fools? I think not. Certainly not in a country with over 90% literate population!

Power is diffused throughout a society and it is geo-spatially produced, springing from myriad sources, economic, educational, religious, cultural and political. Effects of power can be negative or positive. The state uses both social consensus and coercion as means to mobilize power, and the state is capable of simultaneously legitimizing coercion and building a consensus to support its oppressive tactics. This is how political power is produced: it’s not an historical constant, and its asymmetry is based on unequal access to and control over knowledge, resources, and legal, political and social institutions. In this sense, we need to view media as both a site of production of, and resistance to, power. Journalists’ failure to recognize the diffuse nature of state power and their own role on production of the state and its bases of power, together contribute to making of the state as the dominant institution where power is concentrated.

One difficulty in grappling with the issue of state power is the difference, and the relationship, between the state and the nation. State and nation are both geo-spatially produced configurations of power relations. Yet, Nation and the state are not the same, but exist symbiotically and do not evolve together: sociological bases of state and nation are not identical. People’s complacency and refusal to question the unjust practices of the state are often driven by their reluctance to do the same about the nation.

The nation state is a geo-social institutional form that evolved and spread throughout the world in response to, and as an integral part of the spread of capitalism, born out of bloody struggles. Neither the nation state nor capitalism are entirely Western phenomenon, although certain Western cultural norms overdetermine their character. The identity of the nation state is derived from both its foreign-born formal characteristics, and from compromises between foreigners and local elites. These compromises are framed in the context of, and make references to a history, tradition, and culture that predate the nation state. To mistake this, and to begin the analysis of the nation state only from the standpoint of a western cultural intrusion prevents us from understanding of the nation state’s sociological character, and particularly its economic base.

At the present moment, the Sri Lankan state has succeeded in gaining popular legitimacy and maintaining public approval (or public complacency, apathy, or silence) about censorship by adopting the rhetoric of “national interest” – ” a term that encompasses patriotism, nepotism, citizenship, development, security, national symbols, sovereignty, and other concepts that ground the nation in religion, national history, and culture (and the conflicts between them). The irony here is that the emphasis on “nation” evokes a sense of belonging embedded in the very social hierarchies and asymmetrical power relations that have led to conflict, and that have given rise to the national security imperatives that eventually led to the suppression of media. The sense of belonging is based on a territorially-bounded, generalized notion of citizenship, economic exchange, and law and order, and allegedly depends on ideas that predate the modern nation-state and have been passed on from one generation to another. The truth of the matter, however, is that national and sub-national symbols (e.g. the Lion, the Tiger, the national anthem, the names of national military regiments) are more often derived from mythical or revisionist history than from accurate depictions of the nation’s past. National security derives its legitimacy not only from people’s desire for freedom from terror, but also by everything that defines their sense national citizenship.

At the root of the ideological framing of state censorship is the competition between the elite classes to define the “nation” in a way that supports their own interests. Each seeks to use state, temples, churches, mosques, archeological sites, media services and educational institutions to revise our understanding or sense of nation in their favor. Since independence, the production of knowledge about our “nation” has been progressively transferred from the hands of professionally trained historians to a lesser-qualified but politically more acceptable group of “experts.” Now, reconstruction, development, resettlement, post-war memorializations and peace building (of the state and NGOs alike) are all explained with comforting references to religion, culture, and history. At the same time — and despite the rhetoric of national unity — state power has become ethnicized, gendered, and asymmetrically spatialized, by processes responsible for conflicts and concentration of state power.

Journalists and their antagonists often share the same national ethos- “they collectively produce the very powers they despise and oppose, partly because they are sustained by the same forces. Journalists’ lack of critical engagement with religion, culture and the history that defines a community’s sense of “belonging” has contributed to the emergence of a “kinship-national security state” that mirrors pre-colonial monarchies, although today it is backed by the dictates of capitalist globalization and the prevailing euphoria over the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Journalists seem no wiser than the general population in recognizing this fact, and some in the profession have been guilty of abstracting “terrorism” (the key evocation of the need for “national security”) from its historical contexts, and particularly, from the issues of justice and equality, or providing tacit legitimacy to terrorism under the guise of defending human rights, including the right to self-determination. When journalists criticise their own community and make demands for justice for the community and for the “other,” this makes them vulnerable to accusation that they lack strategic wisdom, or even that they are “traitors.” Issues at stake here are taken for notions of justice and equality and the (sub) national consciousness and their social bases.

The state thrives on the media-produced fragmentation of national consciousness. Even progressive media does not usually facilitate alternative popular consciousness. Those who make the attempt do not have a mass appeal – ” too many “radicals” are busy branding others as “nationalists’ “racists” “extremists”, “conservatives” “state sponsored journalists.” The failure to develop a counter-hegemonic sense of belonging in the nation only enhances the state’s legitimacy when it dismisses and condemns such branding as unpatriotic or claim it aids terrorism. The state has become far more sophisticated and creative than the press when it comes to popularizing and safeguarding the “knowledge” that forms its’ bases of power. When journalists fail to question the ontological and moral grounds upon which state power rests, we all suffer. Battles for media freedoms are also battles against national consciousness, and their success lies in radical reconfiguration rather than simple opposition.

Those who support media freedoms cannot treat politics, economics and culture as separate domains of activity, nor can they view suppression as exclusively political. Instead we must understand the interdependencies between them and, above all, the centrality of economics. Otherwise our demands for, and even our victories in claiming formal political freedoms will be undermined by economic inequalities. Inequality is the defining feature of capitalist systems and its survival and expansion hinges on the reproduction of inequalities. Among all institutions, the state is primarily responsible for creating conditions for the expansion of the capitalist system and preventing struggles for equality from spearheading anti-capitalist uprisings.

The state reconciles the tensions between the general and special interests by periodically changing its form (character, if you like) according to expansionary needs and inequities inherent in the capitalist system. Economic crises are expressed as political and projected onto the state for solutions, rather than on to the economy. Because the state derives its popular legitimacy by representing itself as the guardian of general interest, the state seeks a resolution in the domains of history, legal system, tradition, religion, culture, national security, etc. In so doing, the state maintains both its appearance as guardian of general interests and its primary commitment to capitalist interests. During and after the war, economic power shifted from one group of elites to another, via state patronage. Actors change. But the economic logic, and, hence, the struggle of the state to maintain its capitalist nature, remains the same. Since the colonial period we have seen periodic changes in the form of the state as it shifted from colonial, to welfare, to neoliberal, to national security state, depending on how the state managed the conflicting interests of the society. While there are many continuities and discontinuities in the characteristics of these forms of the state, the most noteworthy continuity is the progressive subordination of the economy, culture and society to local and global capitalist interests.

As capitalism matures, the state reaches near completion of the colonization of every aspects of the society. The state eventually exhausts its ability to manage economic and social crises by appealing primarily to national identity, and must resort to militarism as it seems the only promising means of maintaining the state’s ‘autonomy’ and protecting its ruling elites. Militarism masquerades as national security, which in turn becomes an essential prerequisite for “peace” and “development.” The attempt to legitimize militarization by appealing to generalized identity and loyalty increasingly produces apathy among citizens, and fear of state practices. And the impacts of militarization are unevenly distributed along the lines of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, often with visible geospatial specificity. One-time patriots easily become enemies of the state if the state sees them as threats. State fear less of a political backlash in response to turning of patriots into traitors when the state has the confidence that majority populations’ notions of traitor vs. hero and yard stick of justice are circumscribed by parochial nationalism that the media helps cultivate over many years.

The crises of the state never end as it fails to address domestic economic inequalities, and the loss of economic and political sovereignty to other powerful states and global economic powers. Under such pressures the state begins to suffer from multiple types of isolation, even from loyalists. Isolation breads paranoia and paranoia forces the state to take refuge in anything and everything at its disposal (e.g. finances, gods and spirits, populist and philanthropohic activities etc.) often in conjunction with the militarization of the society. The masses begin to shift from a general state of passivity to critical consciousness and anti-state political activity, mostly likely in societies with higher degree of freedom of expression or brave journalism that uphold the values of truth and justice.

The fundamental difficulty faced by media organizations is that they cannot easily escape from or contest the economic, cultural and political logic behind militarism, because the ‘moral economy’ of these organizations is sustained by those closely associated with the state and patronized by religious and cultural institutions. One might ask: How many media organizations are maintained by private businesses, religious establishments, defense contracts, underworld, casinos, etc.? How many media organizations compromise their integrity simply for the sake of increasing advertizing revenue? In this sense, the so-called “objectivity” of the free media movement is grounded in the very system that frames its objectivity and suppresses its freedoms. How many journalists’ uphold higher professional and ethical standards when they negotiate their respective social life and sources of their stories? Critical awareness of and extrication from the interdependence between the elite classes, religious and cultural institutions, and the media is as important as, and essential prerequisite to, successful struggles against censorship. Emergence of such an alternative culture of journalism in underdeveloped country such as Sri Lanka is severely constrained by systematic forces of global capitalism, particularly when the state becomes a policeman of global and regional corporations and their respective governments.

Demands for freedom of expression in a capitalist system are demands for mobility of labor, capital, technology and commodities, rather than demands to address fundamental economic inequalities, especially when these inequalities and their proposed solutions are channeled through culture, ethnicity and religion. “Democratization” in this parlance means freedoms for capital, rather than for labor or for the media that support the interests of labor. Under the rubric of “good governance,” the World Bank, IMF, and WTO (the unholy trinity) tolerate political freedoms and equality to the extent they do not undermine capitalist interests. Developed nations have repeatedly failed to support human rights and justice in developing nations when they view those rights as conflicting with their own economic and geopolitical interests. The double standards of demands for media freedoms in developed countries have been counterproductive to media freedoms in developing countries.

We often find that media critics make unsubstantiated accusations against media personal who criticize the state, calling them unpatriotic and anti-national and accusing them of receiving Western support. Such Westophobia has no impact on the West, but it does insulate the state from criticism and it allows other newly emerging imperial powers to increase political and economic control over Sri Lanka. State exploitation of anti-western nationalism in the media has the effect of constraining the democratic freedom of Sri Lankans, even as it exploits the hypocrisies and double standards of Western countries. The simplistic binary between Western enemies and non-Western allies overlooks the increasing interdependencies between them; hence, the binary is merely adopted as a populist slogan to enhance the state’s legitimacy.

Unqualified support of state policies, particularly during the 25 years of civil war, trapped the state’s journalist supporters within a territorial concept of state power. Journalists who supported the state during the war, then appeared to be critical in its aftermath, were unceremoniously removed from positions of state power and privilege. Some dissident journalists and those expelled from state media organizations still work for media outfits patronized by the elites, who derive their social power and legitimacy from sources similar to those of the state. Other dissidents seek alternative ways of countering censorship, including going into exile. The increasing colonization of Sri Lanka’s economy and politics by non-Western powers limits the substantive sovereignty of the state and eventually the state may lose the power to expand media freedoms because it is beholden to the interests of these countries in particular and global capital in general. The ability of the justice system to protect the freedom of the free speech fails when the interpretive context and the implementation of the law and order are shaped by ’national interests and how they are positioned vis-Ã -vis the dictates of the global economy.

Under these circumstances many believe that the internet is a powerful tool against government tyranny. They claim that government crackdowns violate “technology’s democratizing manifest destiny.” Network development expands the dissemination of information past national, geographical boundaries, and increases opportunities for global resource sharing. The information society has indeed transformed the spatial character of news production and dissemination, making it even more difficult to reduce the configuration of state power to territoriality or its geographical boundaries. Examples from around the world support the claim that the conditions of oppressed groups and safety of the journalists would have been worse if not for their use of internet to mobilize opposition against oppression.

Yet internet-based media is not ideologically neutral or automatically democratic. The internet, open and available around the clock through satellite technology, may continue the trend of limiting the concentration of media power in the hands of a few media conglomerates, and it does not guarantee that access to either content or content-production will be democratic. Instead it may simply replace “broadcasting” with “narrowcasting” and reinforce various forms of ideological and material controls. For example, the way images are selected and stories are framed and editorialized in cyber media does not automatically evolve with the changes in the technology. Democratization of media does not automatically address the asymmetries of wealth and power that made the conventional media a tool of propaganda and ideological control. Ownership and control of media are still channeled through the same system of economic, power and politics, and the number and sophistication of commercials are evidence of capitalist control of the internet.

There are serious questions about credibility in internet news, and the medium provokes hasty responses by consumers, which can be socially counter-productive. Time and space compression provide undue advantages to the wealthy and the powerful who seek to produce and disseminate their ideas and displace others. The sheer volume of stories arriving on computer screens across the globe reduces the amount of attention that can be paid to any one story. The majority of internet users are a passive audience for those who produce and disseminate judgments. The democratizing potential of the internet could also turn out to be its weakness. Although authoritarian states are most famous for controlling freedom to access the internet, people seldom consider how effectively the tumultuous and crisis-prone capitalist economy does the same. A dilemma arises when the lack of accountability on the internet gives the state and excuse to “protect” the “general interests” of the masses by suppressing criticism against the state. Here we find that state not only relies on its ability to censor the internet, but also exploits and depends on national consciousness to constrain the potential of internet technology to disseminate information.

The rationale for relentless pressure from the ‘”unholy trinity” to deregulate and privatize media and communication systems is that information asymmetries must be reduced to smooth function of the market economy. The extent of their democratizing power is limited to furthering capitalist interests and does not ensure economic and political equality for the majority. Increasing investments in satellite and digital technologies in developing countries have resulted, in the rise of transnational media giants. A few companies control the majority of the worlds’ media and they are backed by multinational corporations. The motto is “get bigger so you dominate markets and your competition can’t buy you out.” These companies increasingly transmit stories and images to thousands of newspapers and television channels who find that it is cheaper to purchase these stories rather than produce their own news.

The Internet is manufacturing consent in the same way that mainstream media does, as described in Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model. Sheldon Ramdon points out: “As new technology enters the mainstream… we can expect changes in the techniques used to influence public opinion, but institutions with wealth and power will continue to do so. Power still concedes nothing without a struggle.” Blurring the boundaries between the personal and professional in cyberspace creates a host of ethical questions. Mary Hartney, Director of Audience Engagement at the Baltimore News, hopes that reporters, editors, managers and others will help shape the new guidelines to truly democratize media: “The technology is changing, so I hope the ethics policy is a living document.”

“Free media” does not simply describe the freedom to express oppositional views. Exercise of freedom in journalism is about making moral and ethical choices. It is morally reprehensible to allow one’s vision to be limited by national and territorial boundaries and their underlying social, political bases (history, culture and religion) if those trappings deny equality and justice to humans. Nations exists for human beings, rather than humans existing for the nation . There is no 100% objective or unbiased journalism. Such is a utopian dream. In the same token, the absence of 100% objective journalism is no excuse to abstain from making sound analysis and judgments.

Biases are expression of values. From a moral standpoint, not every form of bias has equal value. To say otherwise is to fall into the pitfalls the tropes of cultural relativism and abrogate any freedom to pass value judgments and hold anybody accountable for right and wrong behavior. In the same way, not all exercise of power and authority over freedom of expression is bad. The choices the journalist makes are moral choices with far-reaching implications. These choices can significantly impact how the public opinion shapes the interpretation of laws of the country. But we must remember that journalists are human, and as individuals they will exhibit shortcomings. It would be equally wrong to condemn the free media movement just because of the moral failure of a few journalists. Journalists’ not only expose their moral bankruptcy and personal jealousies, but also enhances popular legitimacy of the state censorship when they ridicule, misrepresent, and chose to remain silent when their fellow journalists receives international recognition for their achievements and subject to harassment by the state.

We can only expect a new paradigm of media freedom to evolve if we critically engage with our national and sub-national consciousness, and understand how it is framed by and frames our sense of belonging in the context of our history, culture, religion, and the capitalist economy. Without such engagement formal legal reforms and internet technology are unlikely to create a truly free media or make much of a difference in the status quo. Our engagement in the struggle for media freedom should be guided by our concern for justice and equality, rather than by some unrealistic over-arching slogans of national identity/consciousness, such as “we all are Sri Lankan” and “there are no minorities in the country.” Nor we should succumb to a vulgar materialist premise that improvement in material conditions (development) will automatically address existing inequities of power and privilege. Nor must we accept simplistic and self-defeating binaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and ‘Western’ and ‘Non-Western.’ Journalists must share the burden of ensuring that we accurately gather and frame the lessons of past 25 years of war, and translate them into a peace and reconciliation not be guided by the same national and sub-national consciousness that caused the war in the first place.

Perhaps we should begin our task by recalling George Orwell cautions about the Ministry of Truth in 1984: “The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated? And if all others accepted the lie that the Party imposed – “ if all records told the same tale – “ then the lie passed into history and became truth – ¦ It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink'”

Ideological claims about national security are not exclusively directed toward protecting human lives, guaranteeing justice and equality, or preserving the nation’s sovereignty. Instead, they are more often set to the task of preserving oppressive social hierarchies and harnessing the concept of the nation to the service of global capitalism.

Authors note: For a detailed discussion on state power in this article see John Agnew,Hegemony: The New Shape Of Global Power, Tempel University Press, 2005,