There is a trend with which Sri Lankans are unfortunately all too familiar. A new Government comes into town and the air is suddenly shot through with a lightning blue bolt of electric hope. It is as if the ground has been parched with drought for years and then the freshness of the rains is [...]


Keeping that bolt of blue lightning alive


There is a trend with which Sri Lankans are unfortunately all too familiar. A new Government comes into town and the air is suddenly shot through with a lightning blue bolt of electric hope. It is as if the ground has been parched with drought for years and then the freshness of the rains is upon us, promising us an intoxicating recovery.

Is there an increasing state of siege?
But what actually follows is all too pedestrian. Struggling to meet invariably high expectations whilst hemmed in by wonderfully incompetent sycophants looking for new ways of survival, the newcomers retreat as swiftly as they once advanced, with their shields formidably up. Reassurances of collaborating with the media, civil society so on and so forth give way to a more charged dynamic. And the air becomes thick, not with ebullience but rude warnings ‘to behave or else.’

These are historically repetitive patterns of political behavior. And it would indeed be a profound pity if the ‘yahapalanaya’ unity Government ushered in last year with enormous goodwill also falls into this common cycle. In recent weeks, we have had increased ministerial belligerence regarding the regulation of the media, including sweepingly generalized statements on the deterioration in standards. While there is considerable truth in this, it goes without saying that the media is but a microcosm of society. Its degeneration is only reflective of a wider reality in Sri Lanka, in public institutions, in courts of law, in academic seats of learning and most discernibly in Parliament itself.

Compounding ministerial belligerence, a Presidential pronouncement was issued no less emphasizing the transparency of civil society organizations a few days ago. In each case, it is not the message per se but the context and manner of its utterance that raises concern. Is the Government increasingly feeling itself under siege?

Selecting one’s battles
True, the Joint Opposition’s cacophony as it beats the ethnic drum is undoubtedly shrill. Moreover the ready enthusiasm with which the electronic media gives prominence to these inflammatory utterances violates all canons of media professionalism.
But it must also be acknowledged that some of the fault for this defensiveness lies elsewhere. The unity Government gravely erred in departing from a good governance agenda articulated with steadfast assurance last year. Accommodating political rejects in ministerial positions and nefarious corruption scandals including the ugly – and yet unresolved – controversies regarding the Central Bank bond scam haunt us.

Meanwhile the political tempo is high as a package of somewhat unwisely expansive constitutional reforms is sought to be put before the public accompanied by a transitional justice process that has taken neither the North nor the South into confidence. It may have indeed been wiser to have selected particular battles to be won with precision and care rather than embracing the whole in a gigantic effort to please all and sundry.

Aim should be to collaborate rather than anger
So in this excruciatingly painful mix, there are certain imperatives. In principle, the ethical functioning of the media and civil society is undoubtedly to the good. It is to the benefit of the media when standards are raised. The print media struggles wearily in the face of significant industry decline even as journalists recover from the stress of literally being on the frontlines as their colleagues were killed, attacked and character assassinated with impunity. These crimes are yet not actually brought to justice, I may add.

And with a shorter history, (defined more by overt political control than the decades old print media), the electronic media is plagued by an astounding lack of professionalism in its functioning. Meanwhile the emergence of social media in recent years has been a boon as well as a blessing. Used as an easy medium for a range of news, it also is a ready weapon for unhinged character assassination and the acrimonious ventilation of personal vendettas in the guise of impartial commentary.

In that regard, concerns of the Bar regarding the slandering of judges on websites and social media are valid. That granted, these are matters that need to be handled strategically rather than through bullish ministerial statements aimed at angering rather than collaborating.

Civic responsibility of civil society
The same is true of civil society. Transparency of non-governmental institutions is certainly a must. No good argument exists to the contrary. In fact, it may even be said that the adamant refusal of some to acknowledge the need for self regulation has been counter-productive. The old argument that responsibility is owed only to the donors is not valid any longer.

Rather, there is a wider civic responsibility at play. And there is much public resentment when this responsibility goes unheeded. Meanwhile, the ensuing vacuum is filled by the political authority. The problem here is that Sri Lanka’s chaotic legal and regulatory measures have actually helped authoritarian governments.

Thus for example during the Rajapaksa era, a culture of fear was inculcated not through adherence to the law but by employing discretion arbitrarily. Groups that worked in tandem with the regime hid many irregularities under the ‘protection’ afforded to them while others were severely penalized on those very same grounds. Circulars were couched in absurd terms including prohibiting discussions on issues as innocuous as land rights on directions of the Ministry of Defence. Each action, each meeting and each intervention was scrutinized through a covert system of surveillance that struck terror into the hearts of the bravest. This is a history that cannot easily be forgotten.

Need to be alive to ‘old ghosts’
Therefore it behooves the Government to be aware to the dangers of using incautious language that awakens ‘old ghosts.’ It is not enough to simply say that the excesses of the past do not occur any longer. We are unfortunately too well acquainted with the slippery slope on which this empty promise can degenerate at an escalating speed.

These are sensitivities that must be kept in mind even as a critical mass within Sri Lanka struggles to keep that bolt of blue lightning called ‘hope’ alive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.