19th January 1997

Free media: Free-market style

By Rajpal Abeynayake

In some other countries journalists write the news. Here, they make the news. Thanks, then, to successive governments which imbue newsmen (and women) with this star quality by prosecuting them, persecuting them and treating them as if they ran the theatre. It's good then, to be young alive and in the fourth estate......................

If the government wants to make the press the issue, that is the government's problem. Satanic Verses Salman Rushdie's mild experiment became an international bestseller after the book was banned.

TNL's viewer segment is going up, thanks to Chandrika Kumaratunga. Nice wedding present, a little late albeit............

For maudlin repetitions of the past, the TNL fiasco and all connected events are hard to beat.

On one side, the former champions of the free media, now the aggrieved propagandists of Beira Gedera are tearful about the fact that the newspapers offer nothing more than gossip.

The press cannot be given the freedom of the wild ass, point taken long ago. But, this is the information age, and naturally, whether Marshall MacLuhan said it or not, those who provide the information have an important role to play in the scheme of things.

For a government which championed the cause of press freedom, to turn their guns on the press, is to invite ridicule. No amount of comparisons with how the previous regime handled the press are relevant because the mandate of this government was to provide press freedom in no uncertain terms.

The government can argue that the independent media is irresponsible, and then proceed to make heroines of sheltered and privileged people such as Ishini Wickremesinghe Perera. That is the government's right.

What's the government's grouse? That there is politicking in the press. So what's new?

There always is, and there always will be. Those who are in hot pursuit of the virgin free media know that newspapers are owned, that they are managed, that the owners try to tow their own little lines and give vent to their own little frustrations.

This does not mean that the 'independent' media cannot exist in quintessence. Neither does it mean that all individual and separate media establishments will be totally free and unencumbered.

If the TNL is a bit UNP, then there is nothing much that can be done about it. That's freedom of the press, because, if not, the freedom of the press will somewhat like the parent who tells the daughter 'you are free to marry anyone as long as it is someone whom we choose'.

The government can send the police after Ishini Wickremesinghe, that is the government's prerogative under the PTA, and whether the PTA is draconian is another matter entirely.

But, by sending the cops after people like Ishini, the government makes happy heroines of their detractors. A while ago, for example, people were saying Ishini who? Now they are saying, Ishini for President.

It is interesting however to imagine the state of things in the operations room of the Cabinet. Was it like this, perhaps? says Mangala 'no, I think these news directors are too big for their boots. We'll teach them a lesson.' Says Dharmasiri 'no no, let's be gentle, we will kill them softly with our love......'. Finally they toss. Folks, Mangala won the toss last week.............

The government now says that the protests opposite the Fort Railway station in which a substantial cross section of the journalistic community participated was a UNP engineered campaign. Was it? Well, both yes and no. Were the free media style campaigns aimed at the UNP government a couple of years back engineered by the PA? Well, both yes and no, right?

Whether the opposition jumps the bandwagon of a journalists protest, or whether the journalists jump the bandwagon of a opposition protest is hard to say, but what can be said is that it happens all the time. It happened when the 'free media'' movement aimed its artillery at the UNP, and it is happening now when the UNP is accused of being in cahoots with the same free media movement which now displays a few different faces, (because some of its former 'faces' have been deposited in the chambers of the Lake House.)

Hence, we hereby come to the end of another episode of Days of Our Journalists Lives. Watch television stations, newspapers and police stations near you for the next episode...........

Quite apart from the turn-table absurdity of the press vs. state stakes, it is interesting to see why this government is reacting with this amount of aggression towards the 'independent' media in the first place.

It is not the way this relationship started. If somebody will pursue the TNL archives today, he will find tapes of an interview with Chandrika Kumaratunga, Presidential hopeful, on the eve of the Presidential elections, where the present President smiled her smile and gave the opposition beans. Why did the TNL, if as the government says today is Wickremasinghe biased, extend its camera and facilities to the PA Presidential candidate? Could it be because the UNP Presidential candidate at that election was the wife of someone who was not the Wickremesinghe's favourite person?

It could be, but that didn't stop Ms. Kumaratunga from taking the chance. She took up the offer of TV exposure on a TNL interview, and probably revelled in the circumstances in which such an interview was aired.

That's not wrong, but it underlines the point. All sides do politicking, be it politicians or the press, and some media establishments give endorsements to candidates, like they do for instance in the US.

From its actions in the recent past this government has made it obvious that it is even more media sensitive than some of the UNP governments which preceded it. It looks as though the President has presupposed that the media can ruin the government

The new wave of privately owned broadcasting is probably slightly more capitalistic and classist than the print media which probably leads to the government's fears that the broadcast media, particularly, are biased against the government. The answer has been an almost hilarious kind of paranoia which needless to say is at cross purposes with the government's liberal and transparent posture.

But, is such paranoia necessary? Previous UNP governments have been backed by the state media plus several other staunch and powerful supporters from the privately owned press, but have in spite of that lost handsomely in the elections.

The privately owned press for its own part has been a fickle paramour at best, and moreover the plurality of media establishments has in true free market manner created a market for competing ideas and ideologies.

This was true even during the years of UNP control when many Sinhala tabloids customarily ravaged the government. It will be foolish to think that there is total democracy and objectivity in privately owned newspapers even where a mature and tested environment of media freedom exists, say for instance in Britain for example.

If in quintessence there is freedom of the press that's all a government can ask for particularly when it is not a concomitant of press freedom that a newspaper should not tout a certain ideology or support a certain party.

In such an environment a reader will decide who is biased in favour of whom, a difficult concept for our government's to realise probably because they find it difficult to look at the press from a free market mind-set the same way they look at other enterprises.

True, the soap industry does not shape public opinion, but it is not just the press that shapes public opinion on a government either, it is performance as well. So why spend sleepless nights over how the press behaves itself?

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