14th February 1999
Elections, the media and other woes
By Kishali Pinto Jayawardena
When public accountability is discussed, it is easy to focus on the politicians alone. The crucial fact remains that public accountability means a much broader burden of responsibility that should be borne by professionals, judges, journalists, activists and in an ultimate sense, the entire citizenry.
The conventional truth still holds valid: just as much as war is too important a matter to be left to the generals, governance is indisputably too crucial a process to be left to the politicians.
Where the processes of governance fail therefore, responsibility has to be borne not only by politicians alone.
In that sense, Wayamba is a tragic stamp of our post 1994 collective failure. To recognise it as such is however not easy, for this means deviating from conventional patterns of blame. In this mood of post election sobriety however, an appropriate start has been made in that critical attention is now being focussed on the manner in which the media itself has responded to electoral issues and electoral violence.
A recent report released by INFORM, (Sri Lanka Information Monitor), a human rights documentation centre based in Colombo which has systematically analysed media attitudes in the immediate run up to the January 25th elections makes interesting reading for scribes more accustomed to critiquing rather than being critiqued
The report which looks at issues of the mainstream Sinhala and English press published between the 15th to the 25th of January has omitted review of the Tamil press "purely for logistical reasons."
The monitoring focuses not only on analysing the contents of each article that was published in the press but also on examining the space allocation in terms of page, location on page and the number of column inches reserved for each article. Some data are predictable, others more provocative. The fact that newspapers belonging to the state media have focussed extensively on election violence by the UNP and against the Government and that their colleagues in the private media have responded vice versa is, of course, nothing very new.
The manner in which newspapers have been utilised for political propaganda shows however a blatant pattern of partisanship which is startling and which impacts in a significant manner not only on the state media but also on the private media, some newspapers more than others.
It has also been observed that almost all newspapers have been responsible for open violation of the election laws in that they carried material which effectively amounted to election campaigning on behalf of various political parties during the period within which campaigning was prohibited in law.
The power of editorial policy has been highlighted in that candidates from non- mainstream political parties and those who contested in independent groups have been given marginal space to articulate their opinions, in most cases, none at all.
"This is specially disturbing in view of the fact that the existence of varying shades of opinion and the opportunity for minority views to be articulated freely constitutes a key element of the democratic process.
The space to articulate diverse opinions and find legitimacy for them in the mainstream political arena becomes all the more critical in a society which is in crisis, such as Sri Lanka" the monitors comment.
Meanwhile, the report also looks at the amount of space reserved for appeals for peace and for the conducting of free and fair elections, concluding that due to the widespread violence, a considerable space was allocated in newspapers, more in advertisements by NGO's but also in editorials and articles requesting both the politicians and the public to act peacefully.
Ultimately, the point made by the monitors is succinct and very definite.
The very foundation of democratic governance and the rule of law requires that citizens have free access to information from a wide range of sources, so that they may form an independent opinion with regard to all political and social issues. Ensuring the free flow of information, specially during elections is a critical part of the democratic process, and newspapers which provide biased, partial or false information to the public during an election period with the objective of engaging in promoting one political party or the other, undermine the values of a free press and a democratic society. One could well add that this undermining could easily be said to be the most despicable manner in which the processes of governance is subverted, because the enemy comes from within and is therefore that much more difficult to identify.
The INFORM report should be read in conjunction with the recently released publication of Article XIX, by the International Center Against Censorship, to illustrate just how deep the country's media woes are. The internationally recognised media watch dog body, in their publication, titled "Fifty Years On - Censorship, conflict and media reform in Sri Lanka" has remarked that the early promise shown by the Government of reforming has been "extremely disappointing".
State practice with regard to the media has become even more censorious and government policy on "national security" grounds has been used to infringe the rights to freedom of expression, information and association along with a whole host of other rights, as was apparent by the imposing of a military censorship now clearly shown to be farcical and for the ulterior purpose of muzzling the media.
The many threats, intimidation and harassment, extra legal and otherwise, of individual journalists, the postponement of the Provincial Council Elections to five provinces last year under an ostensible state of emergency thus affecting the right to franchise, have also been identified by Article XIX to be issues that raise serious concern amongst human rights defenders about the Government's actual commitment to reform.
1999 therefore appears to foretell the final collapse of the 1994 reform process that looked at the media, be it state or private and the legislators of this country as engaging in a collaborative and responsible effort to improve the country's legal and administrative media environment.
While the State has given up even the pretence of implementing genuine reform, certain sections of the media itself seem to be lapsing into easy attitudes of partisanship that have a fundamentally negative impact on the entire process. It is indeed an overwhelming sense of déjà vu that one feels.
The Wayamba elections have resulted in a political crisis. The network of NGOs and western religious organisations which helped to bring the PA into power, and thereafter dictated its agenda, are highly critical of the methods used by the PA to grab power at these elections.
These NGOs have always worked towards the advancement of Tamil racist aspirations. The adverse impact of the PA's methods on the so-called 'peace process' pursued by them has heightened the sense of crisis, as their plan to bring the PA and the UNP together for another round of 'peace talks' with the LTTE has suffered at least a temporary setback.
There is an important question raised in the aftermath of the NW PC elections. This is not whether the results should be annulled, but whether the entire Provincial Council system should be annulled.
Under the terms of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, the Provincial Council system was forced on Sri Lanka. There was no discussion as to whether it was suitable or not, and the first PC election campaign was a virtual civil war. The 66,000 lives that were lost during the 1987-89 period is at least an indirect result of this. What we saw in the recent NW PC elections was a continuation of this tradition.
It is obvious that the Provincial Council system is a total failure. It is not only a 'white elephant' that drains a tremendous amount of the nation's financial resources, but it has also resulted in chaos as far as public services such as health, education, transport etc., are concerned. The administrative machinery of the State has been completely disrupted, and the political wrangling within PCs and between those controlled by rival parties is a serious impediment to the development of the country.
The District Development Councils were introduced in 1981 as a solution to Tamil separatism. The next complaint of the separatists was that the DDCs did not have sufficient power. So the PC system was introduced. It functioned in the North and East for less than a year, and ended with Vartharaja Perumal declaring the area an independent state.
The separatists then complained that the PCs also did not have sufficient power. The present situation is that the so-called solution for the North has been forced on the South, while no political institution at all can function in the North in the face of LTTE terrorism.
What is clear from this is that the basis for any solution is the eradication of terrorism, so that democratic institutions can exist. The complete destruction of the LTTE is a pre-requisite for any solution, and no amount of fancy theorising can alter this fact. What is required at the moment is a concerted effort towards achieving this end, not the unending chatter about Provinces and Regions and Political Solutions and 'Packages'. According to the separatists, PCs are no good because of problems with the constitutional powers conferred. The fact of the matter is that they are not willing to settle for a PC because it does not come up to the standard of a separate state.
This is the only goal they are interested in, and the only goal they have worked towards since the beginning of the century.
No solution which falls short of a separate state will be accepted by them. Those who think that the so-called 'Moderates' might be willing to settle for something less than what the 'Tigers' are demanding are only deluding themselves, because these are just two faces of the same beast.
A recent trend that has become apparent around the world is the erosion of the 'State'. Globalisation of capital, consumerism being accepted as the only 'global culture', the concept of the 'global village' are all responsible for the gradual dilution of the power of individual states. The economic, political and opinion - forming powers that individual states possessed a few decades ago, have been usurped by various international organisations.
It is in this context that ideas like 'de-centralisation' and 'devolution of power' have become fashionable.
In Sri Lanka this is proceeding at an accelerated pace. The state is losing its authority to institutions like the World Bank, the IMF, and various regional groupings like SAARC on the one hand, and to separatism, racism and religious fundamentalism in the form of the LTTE, Thondaman and Ashraff on the other.
In view of this, the Central Government trying to 'devolve power' is something of a joke, because it has hardly any power left in the first place.
While de-centralising the state administrative machinery is certainly an acceptable idea; what the continued existence of the nation requires is a strong Central Government.
The abolition of the Provincial Councils would be a positive step in this direction.
Will Lanka and Sweden find the right formula?
By thalif deen at the united nations
Sri Lanka and Sweden have been offered one of the most formidable trouble-shooting jobs at the United Nations: the reform and restructuring of the only UN body empowered to make war and peace.
The proposal to create a new post-Cold War Security Council was entrusted to a Working Group back in December 1993. But after five years of closed door meetings— and hundreds of long-winded speeches, as the UN is usually prone to— the issue remains deadlocked.
The President of the General Assembly Didier Opertti, Foreign Minister of Uruguay, has now handpicked Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative Ambassador John de Saram and his Swedish counterpart Ambassador Hans Dahlgren to co-chair the Working Group that is expected to come up with the right solution.
The Working Group, which consists of all 185 members, has been given time till September to come up with a formula that will be acceptable to all member states because the final decision has to be based on consensus.
The questions before the Working Group are daunting: Should the veto power be eliminated? Should the number of permanent members be increased? Do Japan and Germany deserve to join the existing exclusive Big Five? How many new developing nations should be brought in as permanent members? In Asia, should it be India and Indonesia? In Africa, should it be South Africa, Nigeria or Egypt? In Latin America, Argentina or Brazil?
With all these countries staking their claims for new seats, the membership is hopelessly divided. Instead of seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, they are really seeing a tunnel at the end of the light.
If Sri Lanka and Sweden can come up with the right formula in a situation where everyone is groping in the dark, their names will be enshrined in stone in the glass house by the East River.
But history apparently is running against them. When the United Nations was created nearly 54 years ago, one of the basic tenets of the Charter was the principle of one-nation, one-vote— irrespective of a country's territorial expanse, wealth, its financial contributions or the size of its political ego.
Unlike the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)— where voting is weighted in favour of the rich over the poor— the United Nations was held out as an example of a democratic showpiece at work. But how far was this political perception true?
While some of the delegates in San Francisco on that fateful day in April 1945 were apparently looking the other way, the UN's founding fathers (feminism was still struggling to be born) slipped in a veritable political time-bomb which is still ticking in the corridors of the world body.
As George Orwell would have it, the creators of the UN decided that while all countries were created equal in the eyes of the world, there were some who were more equal than others.
And so the concept of the Security Council was born where Big Five "permanent" members - the US, France, Britain, Russia and China (which replaced Taiwan in 1971) - exercise the most powerful and destructive weapon in the world body: the veto power. The 10 non-permanent members are elected every two years on the basis of geographical rotation. But these countries did not have either the status of a "permanent" member nor did they possess veto powers.
Over the years, the veto has been misused to protect Israel from being punished for its continued violations of UN resolutions in occupied territories, to sustain economic sanctions against Iraq where malnourished children have been dying in their hundreds, and at one time, even to keep new nation states from joining the then exclusive club.
Sri Lanka's first attempt to gain admission to the UN in August 1948 was vetoed by the then Soviet Union for political reasons. Eventually, it gained admission only in December 1995, but as part of a large political package that involved backroom horse trading.
The UN's membership has grown from the original 51 members in 1945, to 113 in 1965 (when the Security Council was enlarged from eleven to 15 members), to the current 185. But the structure of the Security Council has remained the same since the inception of the world body.
And so the political merry-go-round goes on and on.
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