7th June 1998
47, W. A. D. Ramanayake Mawatha Colombo 2. P.O. Box: 1136, Colombo 2.
Censorship with a gun
The war is the single most important issue in the country today, but the Government apparently does not want the people to know too much of what is going on.
We believe the people have a right to know. While we agree that details of operations which will give a military advantage to the LTTE cannot be and must not be published, there is a need for military debacles or setbacks to be discussed.
We feel the Government needs to rethink and work out a completely different strategy in changing what is now a confrontational course with the media into one of dialogue and co-operation.
For the first time, a Government of independent Sri Lanka has appointed a military censor to "whet" and "cut" media reports relating to sensitive material on the war.
Unfortunately, this is a drastic step. So far the censor has been a civilian, usually a Competent Authority from the Information Department who has some rapport with the media.
What happened on Friday was virtually a surrender by the Media Ministry of a function traditionally exercised by it to the military, who while having skills in some fields, often lack the experience for balanced and effective mass communication.
We hope this is not the first step towards martial law, though the trend seems to be fearfully similar to how such situations develop in other countries.
We must therefore ask today whether military censorship was enforced to cover up the harsh realities of this often brutal and sometimes mismanaged war.
Just before the new offensive was launched to capture vital Mankulam, Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte and Defence Ministry top brass hosted the media to a reception at Army Headquarters. We thought this was a sign that the military was ready to take the media into its confidence.
But this sudden clampdown on war reporting has shattered whatever hopes we had of a dialogue and a better media-military relationship in the highest national interest. The justifiable and inevitable question which comes to mind is: Would they have clamped down on the news, if it was good news?"
And so, we are left with a frightful bewilderment as to whether the war is going on a course that is even worse than we know.
Among other negatives, the military censorship will give rise not only to dangerous rumour inside the country, but also give the LTTE an unchallenged reign with the international media, because of the news blockade. And how can a Government in Colombo prevent a foreign news agency being briefed by its Colombo Correspondent and despatching the story from London, New Delhi or Hongkong? But does the Government care about its image overseas as long as the bad news is not told to the ordinary people of this country on the eve of the Provincial Council elections?
Whenever such measures have been adopted we have urged governments to be on the offensive in their media campaign - not on the defensive.
The offensive means not to bash up journalists, not to impose blanket censorships, but to win their confidence, seek their co-operation, trust them and confide in them. Journalists care for this country as much as anyone else. Governments must make no mistake of this.
With the media having the potential to play a crucial role in bringing about proper awareness and understanding among the people, the government is making a tragic error in treating journalists as obstacles, if not, enemies.
Remember that the national media in Sri Lanka are on the side of this country's Armed Forces. They wish to be side-by-side with our heroic men and women at the front. Why is the government keeping them away, unless they have something to hide?
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