Media under siege
As this newspaper marks its 20th anniversary next Thursday (June 7) we thought it timely to reflect on the freedom of the media -- as always, a hot topic. The freedom of the media is not the freedom of journalists alone -- its scope is far, far wider than that, for free thought and free speech are the very hallmarks of a free citizen.
Today, this freedom is under siege in Sri Lanka from many different quarters for many different reasons -- but to its eternal credit, it still survives, in one way or the other bringing the news to the citizenry, keeping them informed amidst great odds ranging from murder, to harassment to strangulation by restricting newsprint. The Free Press in Sri Lanka was baptized by fire way back in the 1960s when the Press Council Bill was introduced. A government fell on this Bill, and when that same government returned to office next time round it took sweet revenge by forcing such a regulatory body down the throats of the Press. With it came the takeover of the country's then largest newspaper house -- Lake House.
A massive opposition campaign was launched against the twin moves, but that opposition when in government lost no time in hauling before Parliament, a Lake House editor on a trumped-up charge of Breach of Privilege, and an orchestrated Justice by the Mob exercise saw MPs donning the garb of prosecutor and judge.
This was clearly meant to be a shot across the bows to warn any newspaper -- only the Davasa Group remained as an independent newspaper house -- of the dire consequences of stepping out of line. And then followed the stoning of the houses of Supreme Court judges. The two bastions of a Free State -- the Press and the Judiciary -- were placed on notice, but not so easily brow-beaten. They offered some resistance to a powerful government. Then came the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Riding to office on the shoulders of the Free Media Movement at the time, she soon turned her guns on these very people -- and others. The less said about her commitment to a Free Press the better.
But a fresh wind blew by 2002 when UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister. He moved swiftly to dismantle the impediments to a Free Press, repealing the draconian criminal defamation laws, passing in Cabinet a far-reaching Freedom of Information Act (which unfortunately could not get to Parliament because President Kumaratunga dissolved it ahead of its time), and appointing a Parliamentary Select Committee headed by a respected Opposition MP at the time, Lakshman Kadirgamar PC to study the need to draft a Contempt of Court Law etc.
Recently, however, Mr. Wickremesinghe has been making pronouncements, which seem somewhat incomprehensible, indeed regressive to his once enlightened approach to making Sri Lanka a modern liberal democracy. Ironically, it comes in the wake of covert and overt messages to the media in general from a government almost demanding compliance. That alone should be the greatest certificate for the Sri Lankan Press, for with all its faults, it is now on the firing line of both the government and the opposition. Newspapers ought to be the first to admit their own imperfections, and there are positive signs of their awareness that they must strive for professionalism in their work.
In 1998, in the midst of media repression of the worst kind, three media associations -- the publishers, the editors and the activists banded together to implement the Colombo Declaration on Press Freedom and Social Responsibility. Today, there is a studied move towards greater professionalism and accountability by way of a self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission appointed by the profession (and not the State); a Code of Ethics like in most modern democracies; and a College of Journalism awarding diplomas, and very soon, possibly degrees.
Today, the world is heading rapidly into a New Information Age. Next week, at one of the largest annual media conferences organised by the World Association of Newspapers, the theme is "Quality Journalism in the New Digital Age". Sri Lanka must keep pace with the rest of the world, instead of being in the stone-age of bashing up journalists and bringing in laws that stifle free speech.
Centuries ago, a US President, Thomas Jefferson who though suffering abominably at the hands of the Press was to say that the "ultimate triumph of truth is in the free market place of ideas and information". More recently, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen pointed out that no country in the world that has a free press ever faced a famine. This underscores the importance of the media today. It should not be judged by the fringe, rather its reach, its credibility and its bona fides must be taken into account in the bigger scheme of things in nation-building. The New Digital Age also brings forth new vistas for nation-building, and it will be a wise government that abandons the bad old practices of not so long ago, and embraces the old media and the exciting new.