What a cruel irony that was. While media bodies in Sri Lanka like others round the globe were preparing to observe World Press Freedom Day underscoring the importance of media freedom in strengthening democratic governance and calling on governments to remove the constricting shackles that inhibit effective and serious journalism, Sri Lanka was threatening to [...]


Freedom of the press and power to suppress


What a cruel irony that was. While media bodies in Sri Lanka like others round the globe were preparing to observe World Press Freedom Day underscoring the importance of media freedom in strengthening democratic governance and calling on governments to remove the constricting shackles that inhibit effective and serious journalism, Sri Lanka was threatening to throttle the media.

Whether the timing of the threat a few days before Press Freedom Day was fortuitous or a premeditated move to warn the media it was time to draw the line, let the public judge.

Whichever it was, it showed poor judgment. When world attention, from the UN down to the media in member states and elsewhere was focused on the perennial struggle between governments determined to weaken if not silence the media and journalists who refuse to be cowed by the heavy-hand of authority, for anybody to issue notice virtually compelling compliance, might well be interpreted by international media watchers and civil society as an overture to impending nightmares.

The warning shots across the bow were fired by the newly appointed Secretary to the Ministry of Parliamentary Reform and Mass Media who had hardly warmed his secretarial chair when he dashed off a media release. Its content indicated that it is not the media that should undergo reform but those who espouse such ludicrous views.

The Secretary spoke with seeming authority on ethics, media responsibility and even proffered unsolicited legal advice admonishing the media it was courting trouble by describing a group of opposition parliamentarians as the “joint opposition”.
He made matters worse by saying that using the term joint opposition is tantamount to an offence which, coming from one who is said to be a lawyer, seems like a deliberate attempt to grapple with his own shadow.

Deputy Minister Karunarathna Paranawithana speaking at a meeting organised by the Sri Lanka Press Council for World Press Freedom Day was quoted saying there was a need to introduce regulatory mechanisms including one for the electronic media.

One would have expected this official with a legal background to have quoted chapter and verse to point to the provision in the penal code or any other code which the media had transgressed or would transgress if they continued to use the term.
But alas there was not even vestigial evidence to suggest it was an offence to call the “joint opposition” (as it calls itself) by that term. Nor was it unethical, unless it was based on a hitherto unknown code of media morality.

The Minister concerned washed his hands of the episode calling it the secretary’s personal views which in itself was strange since the release to the media was printed on a ministry letter head which should make it official.

Then the Deputy Minister speaking at a meeting organized by the Sri Lanka Press Council for Press Freedom Day was quoted in a newspaper as emphasising the need to introduce regulatory mechanisms including one for the electronic media.
Deputy Minister Paranawithana had apparently not stated what the “regulatory mechanisms” would be like. For instance he makes no mention whether he is referring to self-regulation or one imposed by the government. As for the electronic media it has already been reminded that they depend on licences issued by the government and is therefore at its mercy.

Lacking clarity, the Deputy Minister’s remarks seem to point at the imposition of state-sponsored mechanisms.
We already have one example of such a system. Those who have been acquainted with the functioning of the Government established Press Council from the very start as I have and how it has been nothing but a tool of the Government of the day would surely see the SLPC observing Press Freedom Day as an unfortunate joke fathered on the public.

This is of course not the first time nor the last (one supposes) that this Government which had promised to bring back and safeguard media freedom and have proclaimed at national and international forums the return of a free press, growled at the media and made noises that hardly sounded encouraging to media practitioners.

So the latest threatening sounds just days before the world observed press freedom day would surely be read by the outside world as early signs that Sri Lanka may be preparing to retreat to the bad old days when critical media was muzzled and journalists killed or otherwise harmed.

It was only the other day that Reporters sans Frontieres (not an organization I particularly respect having written several times about its antecedents) elevated Sri Lanka some 14 places in its 2016 World Press Freedom index, but the country was still hovering round the 140s.

If the current theatrical utterances against the media are going to amount to a practical clamp down on them one way or another, the government would surely be reneging on pre-election pledges and would be hard put to defend itself in assemblies round the world.

Such retrogressive actions would hardly advance the cause of democracy and good governance that it promised the people. Today it speaks of “sustainable development”, a phrase that has now become a cliché, as the road to economic and social amelioration.

Perhaps those who advocate such a development path might take to heart UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message on Press Freedom Day in which he said that human rights, democratic society and sustainable development depend on the free flow of information and press freedom, stressing that these fundamental rights are vital in providing information to citizens.
He said that the media, including increasingly new online media, serve as our eyes and ears and all benefit from the information they provide. In many parts of the world there have been attempts to shut those eyes and ears.

All this is not to say that the media have not been without sin. That would be to distort reality. The sooner the media recognises and accepts this and the industry collectively takes corrective measures the stronger it would be in confronting the efforts of governments to threaten them into submission.

One can understand countries such as China with its one-party rule imposing harsh conditions on the media and their practitioners. Such states tolerate no criticism of their rulers or those around them.  Recently the editor of one of Hong Kong’s leading and respected newspapers Ming Pao was sacked the day after the paper carried a powerful front-page story based on the names of the rich and powerful Chinese mentioned in the Panama Papers.

Protesting Hong Kong media organizations and journalists blame it on China’s creeping hand to control this special region’s media, especially under Chinese President Xi Jinping whose brother-in-law is one of those named in the Panama Papers.

But it is understandable, though not condonable, that a one-party state will brook not an iota of criticism of its leaders. The problem starts when multi-party states that present themselves as paragons of democratic virtue or claim to be aspiring to such laudable heights, act with the same political malignity for the very same reasons – that their rulers are vulnerable and are increasingly paranoid about criticism.

Due to limited space one must put off for another occasion a detailed discussion on recent moves to control the media even in some countries which have been noted in decades gone by as upholders of media freedom and still retain some of those features.

Still one cannot put off comment of the media at home and abroad for bringing some of these troubles upon themselves by their unprofessional and obnoxious conduct that has sharply eroded public faith not only in politicians but the media also.
As seen from here there are two developments that have led to increasing public opprobrium of the media. Technological advances especially in the area of communication have created not only a plethora of ‘information’ sources but also a lucrative field of mass titillation. News and information travel much faster through social media outlets and mainstream media are quickly devising ways to try and keep pace with them. But “breaking news” is often hurriedly put together and sometimes speculative.

Quite often information in social media is also gossip that passes from one or more recipients to others without ever going through the rigorous checks that mainstream media subject them to or should do. Thus gossip is accepted by some as believable fact and privacy is encroached.

Technology has helped in the setting up of websites run by persons who have had no training in news media. Some of them become purveyors of gossip more than respected news sites while some operate outside Sri Lanka’s shores. Even fugitives who have run away from the country ahead of arrest warrants issued by court and Interpol international alerts operate websites on developments in Sri Lanka which public officials have made use of in order malign their own colleagues.

The spread of communication especially via electronic means has created a demand for staff to man the new outlets resulting in largely untrained or partly trained persons being called upon to shoulder journalistic duties they are not yet capable of.
Without an understanding of the basic tools of journalism and journalistic ethics these people are let loose in the world causing more damage to the image of the media and arousing the philistine hostility of politicians.

While publishers and senior journalists have moved forward to try and overcome these difficulties through organizations directed at training in journalism and ethics, it is incumbent on all media outlets and operators of websites to join together and act collectively to strengthen the hand of the media against the censorious impatience of politicians.

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