The Sunday Times Editorial

12th January 1997

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What a thing to say

The government presented a news show on state TV last Wednesday and Thursday in a belated move to defuse the dynamite it had brought upon itself over the TNL-Ishini fiasco. Fortunately or unfortunately, the TV show with the Defence Chief, police brass and state news casters involved, was more newsworthy than the manner in which the government and its CID men handled the whole affair.

We are not going into the merits or demerits of what TNL did or did not do, nor the veracity of the December 28 news story about a withdrawal by the STF from the camp in the eastern province, for that is a different exercise by itself.

What we are shocked about and what some STF brass must surely be thoroughly embarrassed about is General Ratwatte's suggestion that the STF listens to TNL news reports about LTTE activity in their area, rush out to combat the LTTE and alas, get ambushed in the process. Gen. Ratwatte made the STF look like a bunch of idiots that night, but fortunately we and most of the public know that what he said just cannot be true. If that is the information on which Sri Lanka's most elite police unit acts, then the government might as well shut down the National Intelligence Bureau or assign its sleuths the difficult task of harassing defenceless journalists.

As we said earlier the tragic confrontational course that the government has adopted towards the independent media appears to have brought about a phobia or paranoia where some leaders are seeing journalists as terrorists. So while the government was hitting back at pen pushing terrorists and accusing them of carrying LTTE plants, Prabhakaran's men and women hit Paranthan and Elephant Pass with all their might that very night. The toll from this latest calamity is still uncertain and though there is no censorship we see the national independent media acting with a high sense of responsibility. We don't need government watch dogs with dubious motives to remind us of our responsibility to act in the highest national interest.

But we hope that what happened at Paranthan will not be swept under the carpet as was last year's Mullaitivu debacle. It is not that we want sensational stories. But openness and transparency with due security considerations are essential to maintain and strengthen the defences against the terrorists.

Covering up any acts of omission would only send the wrong signals all over.

Getting back to the TNL issue, General Ratwatte looked pretty lame when he gave some excuses as to why the Media Ministry was not even consulted while the drama with the TV station was played out for three days. Naturally Media Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake was upset if not angry when he met journalists last Wednesday for the Cabinet news briefing. Under a barrage of questions Mr. Senanayake said he had no control over the CID and was not told what was happening on the TNL controversy.

Though other government leaders have messed up with the media Mr. Senanayake has been generally fair and accommodative. But we know he is sidelined even in areas under his own portfolio. With 1997 being billed as the year of destiny for Sri Lanka the government needs the cooperation of the independent media in creating public awareness and getting broad based support for a solution to the national conflict. Perhaps allowing the Media Minister to handle media matters without interference by those having vested interest or personal grudges could be the first step towards rebuilding a relationship of trust and cooperation between the government and the media.

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