28th May 2000
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No big bang over banning of newspapers

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Our Lobby correspondent
With the Government now beating the war drums with the same zeal with which it conducted the anti-war campaign, it is the war footing that rankles opposition thinking. 

If the government behaved as if it was given the licence to go berserk with the banning of Leader Publications and the Uthayan, the opposition did no better by doing nothing.

One would have thought if other political parties felt restricted by the promulgation of emergency regulations in its most rabid form, the best forum to thrash it out would have been the Legislature. But what would have been a golden opportunity for someone like J.R.J. Jayewardene to fire all cannons at the administration, to the incumbent opposition it was only an opportunity to whimper in protest.

When Thursday's sessions sought to discuss two bills concerning the workers, the factories amendment bill and minimum wages Indian labour bill, the issue of closing down newspapers, was almost untouched- or touched on the surface.

It was Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in a special statement who expressed concern over the government's shift towards tyranny in defiance of the laws of the land. 

Mr. Wickremesinghe charged that the government had used draconian regulations to stifle an alternative voice and ban media institutions, that did not promote the government's parochial political interests. 

" On the day of the emergency debate, the government faithfully pledged to amend several draconian clauses of the regulations. Nothing has been done, baring the use of the same regulations to gag the free press."

Viewing the conduct of the government as self destructive, he urged if there were any violations, to prosecute legally rather than penalize under emergency cover through extreme measures. He argued that none of these publications had been a threat to territorial integrity, national security or created racial disharmony. 

Caustically he added that the true reason behind the banning was perhaps because these papers raised governance issues which embarrassed the administration. 

Weaving an elaborate argument, the UNP leader charged that negative opinion of the government was not only confined to within the country. He pointed out that the European Union had severely criticized it, while a motion was pending before the House of Commons deploring the government's anti-democratic style of governance. "Use the media as a guiding light that prevents the government from straying away from its original objectives", he urged.

But the UNP's voice of protest was mainly confined to this statement and Labour Minister John Seneviratne somehow managed to keep the media issue out of the scene.

Soon after the Labour minister presented the Factories Amendment Bill, it was UNP's chief Whip W.J.M. Lokubandara's turn.

With his verbal sparring skills on proper display, the national clad parliamentarian held the House spellbound with his narrative. 

His first dig was aimed at the minister himself for giving an evasive answer to fiery Vasudeva Nanayakkara who demanded to know whether the government wished to reduce the lunch break of factory employees from one hour to half an hour.

In keeping with the Vesak and Poson season, he said in the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha upheld the freedom of expression as a cardinal right of an individual.

"When the government attempts to gag the media in this era of high tech information, it is denying the right to know in an era where people have a basic right to awareness."

Heaping scorn with glee, the Badulla member reminded the House that a government, whether everybody voted for it or otherwise, was for the entire country and not a single political party. 

Unable to resist taking digs at the deputy defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte, he noted that while the UNP only wanted to confine the LTTE to Jaffna, the PA wanted to capture the LTTE heartland first. "And then came the glory hours when flags were hoisted with much fanfare without any ministers or other representatives attending the ceremonies. One could say that you did not wish to share the spoils of victory neither the debacle of defeat!

But WJM's real question was whether the government was trying to make emergency regulations superior to constitutional provisions which guaranteed all fundamental freedoms with or without emergency. 

Knowing the art of keeping his delivery on line with Standing Orders, the MP skilfully touched on the issue of 400 people losing employment as a result of the closure of Leader Publications- a matter for the labour ministry.

Amused, he sniped: "They shall remain closed for six months, and that is until elections are held. Understanding the possible misuse of emergency regulations J. R.Jayewardene made it compulsory for a government to come before Parliament and have emergency extended each month. But the papers are sealed for six months. Maybe some people got hurt when qualifications were questioned and governance critiqued- but the truth is that the government cannot bear criticism. It only wants hosannas!"

Minister Seneviratne in his reply could not keep to his theme either- and had a few digs at the amiable Lokubandara.

Skirting the issue about the stipulated break for factory employees, he was more keen to prove that Lokubandara over the years had developed his unique gift of the gab but had compromised in the area of substance!

The country was facing a grave security threat, and the regulations were introduced to curb demoralizing of troops, he said.

Even the debate on the Minimum Wages (Indian) Labour Bill, an emotional topic to many legislators did not evoke the expected heat with many members getting stuck in the argument that there should no longer be any classification as '"Indian labour'but just the term 'labour'applicable to all Sri Lankan working class.

Vehemently opposing the classification and expressing fears about the welfare funds being mishandled was UNP's Renuka Herath. Those who have lived, worked and died here should be considered Sri Lankans she opined when burly John Amaratunga interjected.

" I have heard that the Sunday Leader editor is to be assassinated. It's shocking news. I want an assurance from the House that the editor and his entire family would be given adequate protection" he urged. Soon it was a government chorus of ''Richard de Soysa" and an equally vociferous opposition chorus about "Rohana Kumara". Straining to be heard, John Amaratunga in an emotionally charged tone claimed there was every reason to mistrust a government which had once sponsored an attack on the Sunday Leader editor and his wife.

"Therefore our fears are real" he claimed .

"Protect his life" thundered a vocal opposition while UNP's perennial heckler A.H.M. Azwer wished to know whether the minister had any other information on who might wish to kill the controversial journalist. 

"Richard de Soya must be turning in his grave" sniped minister Seneviratne while the House momentarily resembled a war zone with charges about harassment of journalists by different regimes being traded in frenzy.

Focus on Rights 

Censorship: a matter of opinion

Where the ruthless downing of press freedom is concerned, the Kumaratunga government can undoubtedly claim an impeccable historical kinship with many, including even that most famous defender of individual liberty, John Milton.

Milton's "Areopagatica" (1644) was primarily directed against the power of the licensor and it was Milton, after all, who voiced that immortal plea once to "Give me liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience above all liberties……; Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?" But then again, it was Milton whose proclaimed tolerance did not extend to what he hated, namely "popery and open superstition" which he said should be done away with. In later years, he himself was one of Cromwell's official censors. Several questions then immediately abound. 

What, in truth, compels leaders to countenance action beyond the norm in dealing with expression contrary to theirs? What prompts them to jettison guarantees of free expression, once proudly proclaimed by themselves as being integral and engage in a corrosive filtering of the truth to which the defence of a national emergency fails in many an instance? 

Some years back, in attempting to grapple with some of these questions, present Attorney General of India, Soli Sorabjee found the answers to be at once both profoundly simple and aggravatingly complicated. 

At heart, the sad fact was that freedom of speech had always been more of an ideal than a reality, the first indeed to yield when men or women in positions of power feel themselves or their Governments threatened. Stripped of its high sounding rhetoric, the problem to Sorabjee was not really legal or political but anthropological. Thus, "……..the virus of intolerance lies dormant in all of us and in moments of crisis and excitement, parades its ugly head. 

We are all of us, a mixture of good and bad impulses and it is always the bad impulse that somehow prevails in an excited crowd." For the presently embattled government of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, these niceties are, of course, mere academic fribble and nothing more. 

To the government, the dilemma, indeed, is non-existent as was brutally evident in the President's interview with 'The Hindu' this week. Thus, when questioned as to whether the closure of the 'Sunday Leader' and the imposing of a draconian censorship by her Government did not contravene every norm of a functioning democracy, the President's accusations against the newspapers were short, simple and predictably colloquial; the newspapers concerned were guilty of irresponsibility amounting to treachery and had to be suitably disciplined. 

A further question whether a six months ban for such irresponsibility is not a trifle disproportionate, to say the least, was not posed to her by The Hindu's Nirupama Subramanium, interesting as the reactions would undoubtedly have been.

Be that as it may and as beautifully clear cut as the issues may appear to the presidential mind, the fact remains that the question of media responsibility or irresponsibility, as the case may be, in times of national emergency, is not so simple. From a theoretical acceptance that the media should ventilate public discussion and debate even in times of emergency but that it must do so responsibly and with due regard to the security of the nation, arises a whole host of contentious issues that ultimately hinge on one basic question. 

Where is the line practically to be drawn? For the fact of the matter is that while in a number of cases, publication may either be so sensitive or so innocuous as to fall definitely on either side of the line, in most cases, censoring of a particular assertion by a particular writer becomes a question of opinion. 

And the problem is made infinitely worse, in that, in the words of Harold J.Laski, censorship "confers power in a realm where qualifications for the exercise of power and tests for its application, are, almost necessarily, non-existent - suppression here means not the prohibition of the untrue, unjust or immoral but of opinions unpleasant to those who exercise the censorship. Historically, no evidence exists to suggest that it has ever been exercised for other ends ". So much therefore for the idealist who pleads for accountability during censorship.

Meanwhile, for the readers who request practical comparisons with other countries in the manner in which their governments, media and the people have dealt with censorship in times of national emergency, India in the 1970's provide some interesting parallels. 

Reacting to the Censorship Order imposed in 1975, the Indian people who had been accustomed to emergency but not to pre-censorship of this style and nature experienced what was then described by an eminent Indian counsel as a "shattering experience, somewhat like the after effects of a strong dose of medicine.

"The Order had moreover been imposed in a context where the right to dissent in times of emergency had already been recognised by the Indian Supreme Court. 

There as now, the move was sought to be justified on the ground of the alleged irresponsibility of the press and its failure to perform its proper role.

The Government of Indira Gandhi emphasized that the Government was not against criticism nor did it wish to suppress criticism but that when "………such protests are conceived to destroy the very fabric of society and undo the stability of the political system……..", they must be stopped.

Contrary to these assurances of allowing legitimate criticism to prevail, however, indiscriminate use of the censorship laws led to two veteran journalists asking the court to rule on the unfair deletions of their comments. Here again, the manner in which the two cases were dealt with shows a divergence on the question as to what, in the opinion of the court, amounts to matter attracting censorship, questions that become relevant to us in a context where specific action of the Competent Authority under censorship has not yet been brought by the Sri Lankan media before court.

Interestingly, the first of these two Indian examples involved eleven articles being censored in a Bombay publication appropriately titled, "Freedom First", among which was a commentary headed "Jai Jayewardene" which referred to J.R. Jayewardene, the then leader of the opposition in Sri Lanka, resigning his seat in the National Assembly as from May 27, 1975, as part of his campaign to force then prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to hold parliamentary elections which had become due. 

The article pointed out that Jayewardene had threatened to organise satyagraha on the lines of Narayan in India, and engage in civil disobedience and boycott of taxes, courting jail, if necessary. While the editor of that publication, Minoo Masani who was a former ambassador and politician came to court on alleging arbitrary censorship, his petition followed another appeal filed by Y.D. Lokurkar who had submitted two articles for publication in a leading daily but had been disallowed publication. Both these two articles concerned legal analyses of the Censorship Order, the first written by Lokurkar himself and the second by Soli Sorabjee then a practising lawyer who had written a column titled, "Emergency Situation and the Courts", which column had, in fact, been published before in another newspaper.

In Lokurkar's case, the action of the censor in deleting the articles was struck down by the court on the ground that the censor had misdirected himself in law and had taken into account extraneous matters. It was held that the censor had not specifically shown the manner in which publication of the articles could affect public safety or national security.

However, in Masani's case, while the action of the censor in deleting the eleven articles was totally struck down by the High Court, the censorship of two articles including the commentary on Jayewardene was ruled as being justified in appeal, the latter on the ground that, on a reasonable interpretation, it may have been likely to incite individuals in India to engage in similar acts of disobedience.

Leaving historical parallels aside, undoubtedly provocative as they may be, the questions that concern the national media now in this country are undoubtedly graver than that faced at any time before in the recent past.

As the censorship declared in 1998, strengthened in 1999 and made all encompassing in 2000 continues, media denunciation by the People's Alliance government of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has now led to the banning of two mainstream newspapers for a blanket period of six months together with the banning of a regional newspaper and the ruthless wielding of the censor's pen with regard to both comprehensible and non-comprehensible comment. 

While each of these actions have their own peculiar characteristics deserving therefore independent evaluation in each, what has now become a highly interesting question is how far, indeed, could (or would) this denunciation go?

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