Columns -Thoughts from London

Mending fences with the media

By Neville de Silva

During a conversation I had with President Rajapaksa in London when he was here for the Commonwealth mini-summit I raised the issue of the state of the media in Sri Lanka and the sense of fear that has been instilled in journalists through threats and intimidation which have been highlighted locally and abroad in recent months.

Those who have and have had most to fear are Tamil journalists and those who write on military affairs. Tamil journalists, because of their ethnicity more than on what they write, are particularly susceptible to security forces’ surveillance and interrogation. Defence columnists and writers on military affairs are suspect and are actually or potentially under threat and abuse for what they contribute to the media on such matters. For obvious reasons I cannot disclose some of the contents of that hour or so long conversation. That meeting took place on Thursday morning, the day President Rajapaksa was due to leave London. British politicians and media persons who met the president during his stay also raised their fears over media freedom that appear to hang over the Sri Lankan media with a damoclean effect.
The poorly-attended Amnesty International-led protest and others by the Sri Lankan diaspora also had as one of their main themes the state of the media at home. I was therefore glad to note that immediately after his return to Colombo the president had held a meeting with editors and media owners at which issues pertaining to their vocation and the government’s concern over writings which the administration perceives compromises its war against the LTTE, were discussed. I cannot, of course, say to what extent the issues were thrashed out as media reports were somewhat scanty on detail. But the expedition with which the president summoned a meeting with the media seems to suggest that he was conscious of the damage being done to Sri Lanka’s image outside the country.

One positive sign in this seeming effort to clear the air on this issue was the news report early last week that President Rajapaksa had appointed a ministerial committee to “look into any complaints by media personnel or media organisations,” according to the sources cited in the report. It went on to say that the six-member committee “would intervene in any crisis that media personnel might face and deal with any complaints of harassment or threats to them.” While the two ministers in charge of media and information are quite rightly on the committee, I was particularly pleased to see that Sarath Amunugama is one of its six members. Amunugama has a long history of dealing with the media and media issues both at home and abroad. In his early days in the Civil Service he was director of information, some years later, secretary to the ministry of state that included the media, head of the Singapore-based Asian Mass Communication and Information Centre (AMIC) and was at UNESCO in Paris handling a special media project.

Unfortunately for President Rajapaksa the heavy hand of officialdom that has descended on the media has resulted in a second front-if military parlance might be permitted- being opened against his government. He has had to face criticism both locally and internationally- particularly internationally- for the country’s perceived human rights record. This has been the main thrust against the government by some western governments and international institutions. That frontal attack on the government has now been complemented by the second front- a collection of international media organisations, some with dubious antecedents such as Reporters Without Borders -that have added their voice to the growing cacophony of criticism.

One can understand the Rajapaksa administration’s concern and even anger at what is seen as the mushrooming of military- related regular columns and commentaries which provide in some detail military operations and related matters. Sections of the government argue that the details provided by such writings when collated and analysed provide valuable information to the enemy. Therefore those who do so are “traitors.” There is some truth in this argument but obviously not the whole truth. With the expansion of the Sri Lankan media there has been an inevitable growth in political and defence/military reporting. Naturally the space in column inches and air time would vary depending on whether there is war or peace and a ceasefire. Naturally a military conflict provides more opportunities for reports and commentaries.

The growth of the media industry has led to fierce competition for readers/listeners/ viewers. In such a competitive atmosphere political columnists have tried to give as much detail as possible of cabinet discussions, inner workings of political parties and political conflicts. Each media outlet has tried to show that it has an inside track by providing more and more details and sometimes even purported conversations or comments of political leaders- government and opposition- and even their more private matters. Politics has, for a long time now, been the life blood of the Sri Lankan media. So the more details and gossip the more it titillates the audience.

The long political columns in our Sunday papers and the two-three hour political talk shows on television are an attempt to satiate this hunger. Defence columnists seem to have taken a cue from the political columnists. While there is plenty of grist for the mills of the political writers because politicians tend to yap, defence columnists must necessarily depend heavily on information and the observations of military men, retired or still serving.

Defence writers are very much at the mercy of their informants even more so than political columnists, because we do not have journalists in the theatres of war to be able to provide first hand, on- the- scene reports which could help knowledgeable defence writers to make their assessments. The first thing the government must recognise and accept is that much if not all, the information comes from within the armed services, that military men do talk to journalists, perhaps less so than politicians. The information comes from within, whether officially provided or not. But what is now being undertaken, whether officially sanctioned or not, is that the messenger is under attack.

What is now being attempted by intimidation is to try and cut off the water supply instead of trying to plug the leaking pipe. I dare say that at times defence writers have tended to provide the kind of information and detail in their columns that I have felt could be avoided without doing damage to the main thrust of their arguments. It is such intimate details and, I suppose the casualty figures on the government side and military setbacks and such like that have had the defence establishment go carmine red in the face and yell traitors.I personally think that there is a need for the media itself to exercise caution in reporting. What to disclose and what not, is a matter that journalists must carefully assess. For all the talk we hear from international media watchdogs and the like about press freedom, we know that this is not an absolute right and the very sources cited to justify arguments about press freedom- the UN conventions and the European Human Rights Convention- do place restrictions on that freedom. But those restrictions must be according to the law and in special circumstances. Quite often, particularly here in the West, the media speaks as though it has a divine right to that freedom. Let me recall just one instance, the publication of cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper and their subsequent publication in some other European newspapers on the grounds of press freedom blithely ignoring the restrictions imposed by the European Convention which every editor should have read and digested.

However governments must desist from labelling every journalist who writes on defence matters a terrorist or a terrorist sympathiser. Surely one must give some credit for the intelligence of these journalists. If they are terrorists or sympathisers they are not going to publish such information. They will simply pass it on to terrorist leaders or their minders. They won’t be silly enough to let the whole world know. Unfortunately the word traitor has now entered the common lexicon and it is being bandied about even by lowly officials. While one accepts the public’s right to information in keeping with the best traditions of the media, there is a need to consider the context in which journalists write and act circumspectly in revealing information.

One could onlyhope that the new committee will not be a mere window dressing like the one appointed to inquire into the conduct of Labour Minister Mervyn Silva. The ministerial committee should have a clear mandate and should not be merely a mama to whom a crying child would run. It must ensure that the media’s right to speak on matters is not curtailed except in clearly defined circumstances and not at the whim and fancy of officials. If President Rajapaksa wishes to close the second front and his government establish more cordial relations with the locals and foreign media he should empower that committee to act when and where there are perceived threats to the media. At the same time the media must remember that it has not only rights but responsibilities. They don’t have the same rights as the wild ass.

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