Failed media or failed state?
Once in a way, it is incumbent on us to turn the searchlight inward.
The Press, nowadays more often referred to as the Media, is an integral part of the democratic framework of any society, and therefore, its well-being is indeed the well-being of the people in that society. The people's right to access to information is largely transmitted via the Press and hence, the state of the Press has a direct effect on the right of the people to make informed decisions about their lives.

That is why in most advanced democracies around the world, freedom of speech, expression and publication is a human right. In a report on the "Failed States Index" released this week (See page 11 of our International section) in Washington by the Fund for Peace, Sri Lanka has been lumped together with countries such as Colombia, Bosnia, Laos, Egypt, Ethiopia and Uganda in the 'In Danger' grouping.

At least it's not a Failed-State, not yet, they say, nor in the 'Critical' grouping, but why we find ourselves in the 'In Danger' class might be worth considering.
We could well reflect that this week's brazen attack on the Jaffna-based Uthayan newspaper would surely propel us to a higher plane than the 'In Danger' class, or that we could easily brush shoulders with countries like Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Nepal and the like which are in the 'Critical' group.

The assault on the Uthayan is nothing new to a country like Sri Lanka that has paid step-motherly attention to investigating or discouraging such blatant attacks on press freedom.

Media and Human Rights groups, both local and international have been howling till they are blue in the face - but their cries have fallen on deaf ears with successive governments choosing to remain indifferent to the deteriorating situation vis-a-vis the media.

The Kill the Messenger credo and the tit-for-tat attacks on media institutions and media personnel have gone on and on and on. Whoever committed the atrocity against the Uthayan succeeded in embarrassing the Government in front of an international audience assembled in Sri Lanka to mark -- of all things -- World Press Freedom Day on May 3, under the auspices of UNESCO.

The hurried announcement that some suspects had been taken into custody may have wiped some of the egg off the Government's face, but the overall picture is anything but rosy. It was unfortunate that the UNESCO conference itself did not discuss some of these burning issues, nor make any specific announcement about the attack; no, not even a muted condemnation of the incident.

Nor was there any call for the Sri Lanka Government - or any other Government - other than a fleeting reference - to pay greater attention to safeguarding Press freedom in their respective countries.

That apart, there has been an increasing sense of frustration among local media that the Government of the day is paying almost no attention to weekly exposures on instances of widespread corruption and abuse of power in high office.

One has only to open the newspapers to see the reports of such cases splashed in great detail. Yet, the Government's response has been merely lukewarm.

The Government must not view these exposures as being engineered by the Press to try and embarrass it; rather as a public service to ensure good governance.

Newspapers have been replete with cases -- with names of Cabinet ministers involved in visa rackets and wastage of public funds; of admirals involved in ill-gotten wealth; of ex-presidents involved in shady transactions when in office; and now, of crooked fertilizer tenders. But the President pretends -- or prefers -- not to know.

Unfortunately, again, the UNESCO conference this week did not dwell on one of the fundamental pieces of legislation that advanced democracies are putting into place -- The Freedom of Information Laws - also known as the Access to Information Law.

This law is already in place in neighbouring India. It is a significant step in that it gives the public and the Press access to official documentation that would elicit information about wrongdoings by public servants and politicians who are making hay while the sun shines for them while their compatriots get roasted under the same sun.

Very soon, the Government will probably welcome what the media might just as well do. Given the threats on the one side, and the nonchalance on the other, the media might as well opt to turn their focus on to news that is fit to print, as preferred by the Government and those engaged in guerrilla rivalries.
And in such circumstances, if the Government prefers to believe that what is not reported does not happen; then one fine day they will awaken to find that Sri Lanka has degenerated from an 'In Danger' of Failing-State to indeed, a Failed State.

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