Making a hash of decision-making
Is there anybody advising the government on its media strategy and how to handle day-to-day dealings with foreign and local journalists? Or do everybody and their second cousins get into the act and policy is made on the hoof? If people wonder at the inconsistencies and the simple errors of judgment that seem so manifest in the dealings with the media, it is because of the seeming contradictory approaches often seen in the government’s actions.
If the public see in these contradictions a lack of coherent policy or too- many-cooks meddling with the media soup they are not far wrong. It is the government that has created this public perception. Take the latest cock-up. On May 8 the prestigious International Herald Tribune carried a news story headlined “Sri Lanka rescinds move to bar foreign media for elections.” It went on to say “The Sri Lanka government said Thursday it was barring foreign journalists from covering weekend elections in the Eastern Province, but backed off hours later following a wave of protests by journalists and rights groups.” It quoted Maj Gen Palitha Fernando, a senior official of the Defence Ministry, as saying that “any foreigners not registered as an election observer” would be barred from the Eastern Province during the polls.
The argument adduced for barring foreign journalists was that “it could be dangerous.” “If something happens and a foreigner gets injured it will create problems.” If that is the argument (which to me sounds more like an ostensible reason) for barring foreign journalists then is it being said that if “something happens” to a foreign election observer it is of no consequence and would not cause any problems?
Then came the classic faux pas. The IHT story said that “Fernando later said there was a misunderstanding, journalists would be allowed to cover the election.” What was the misunderstanding, how did the misunderstanding occur, if that is what it was, who was responsible for it? These are legitimate questions that need to be asked in the light of the wide (it was reported by a wire service whose reporters were ordered out of the Eastern Province) and unnecessary publicity this gaffe received internationally. If these are legitimate questions and they surely are, then they deserve serious answers, for by this simple act or “misunderstanding” as the government would have it, it has tarnished its image still further.
It might be argued as I am sure it will be, that the government, or an official anyway, has said that foreign journalists will be allowed to cover the polls and so its good intentions are vindicated. If that was the intention of the government from the very beginning how did this “misunderstanding” as it is now being called, happen? It must be remembered that this Eastern Province election was touted by the government itself as a great triumph for democracy, that the people of the region are at last being given the opportunity after 15 years or so, of choosing their own local leaders and this is the victory of freedom over terrorism. Government ministers on foreign visits made capital out of the freeing of the East from terrorism and the move towards democratic governance locally.
Criticisms of the Rajapaksa policies on war and peace by foreign governments and human rights watchdogs were met with the argument that Sri Lanka’s good faith could be judged by the steps it is taking to establish the democratic writ throughout the country. The Eastern Province election might be a small step for democracy but a giant step for its people. Having trumpeted this achievement both locally and internationally it behoves the government to let the world know how democracy has returned to a once terrorised region, how political pluralism has begun to function in a society rescued from the clutches of terrorism, as claimed by those who sing the praises of its success.
To tell this success story as the government calls it, to the world, those who report news to the world must have access to it. Surely this cannot be done through Lankapuwath, the so-called national news agency or the state-run media. It must be reported by those who are seen, by the world at large rather than by the state apparatus, as impartial. One might disagree on their impartiality or the degree of impartiality. But surely if the government is trying to sell the idea to the world-and by that I mean those influential countries and decision-makers whose policies affect Sri Lanka-then the story needs to be told by the media that they are more likely to rely on to provide them with information rather than that provided by government interests.
That is why when it comes to forming opinion these countries and their decision-makers rely far more on their own sources of information than on what our ministers or diplomats say. If we understand that then the government would not have made the gaffe it made last week, first saying foreign journalists are barred and then opening the doors to them claiming it was a misunderstanding. Take the reason offered for initially shutting them out. It was because injuries to foreigners would cause problems. Problems for whom, pray? These individuals are not tourists strolling around the eastern province. They are journalists going there for professional reasons, to cover this election.
If the conditions there are calm as claimed, then there should be no fear of journalists being victims. Even if the situation is volatile as some say it is, journalists who go into such situations are aware of the dangers they face. That is why they cover wars, go into war zones, report from places under siege and from the heart of conflict areas. If they did not recognise that danger there would not be war correspondents or those that report from the front and in the heat of battle. They are not all embedded journalists being escorted by the armed forces of the state. The fact that many journalists have been killed in recent years covering wars, invasions, insurgencies and even by friendly fire, testifies to the fact that the dangers they face are understood and accepted as hazards of the profession.
The other problem with the explanation is that it seems to draw a distinction between the foreign and local journalists. It seems to imply that what happens to a local journalist, whether he is wounded or killed, is not as important as what happens to a foreign counterpart. Is this seeming concern for the foreign journalist really because of the “problems” any injuries would cause or more because there could be little control over what he writes or broadcasts?
The local journalists are much more ‘controllable’ in that sense, controllable in a way that the foreign correspondent is not, especially if he is not based in Colombo and is a “running Johnny” as we used to refer to parachuted correspondents. No doubt some of what would be written or broadcast might not be to the liking of the authorities for journalists have a way of ferreting news that others would prefer remain buried. That is inevitable. Nowhere could such reporting be stopped, not even in the most repressive countries because modern technology especially makes it difficult.
That has to be weighed against the adverse and probably sustained criticism that would be levelled against the government by media organisations, human rights and media watchdogs and assorted others, especially at a time when Sri Lanka is seeking re-election to the Human Rights Council later this month. It is time the government thought this through and made up its collective mind on a commonsense rather than an adversarial approach to the media.