24th August 1997

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Media and politics


The power of the Defence Secretary given by Emergency Regulations 17 concerns the physical liberty of persons, including those who have not yet, nor ever committed an offence. It is therefore an exceedingly great power, indeed an awesome power that must be exercised with a corresponding degree of responsibility. There is public respect for the independence and impartiality of the Secretary, albeit tinged with latent reverential fear. The Secretary must fulfill public expectations and be independent and impartial, the Supreme Court said last Tuesday in a historic judgment which we hope will end the era and concept that in times of emergency, fundamental rights must take a back seat.

In a positive, progressive and courageous judgment, the Supreme Court said the 60-day detention of former UNP strongman Sirisena Cooray was illegal and ordered the government to release him immediately in addition to payment of Rs. 200,000 as compensation and costs to him. There was a stinging indictment on the government as a whole and Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva in particular when the court rapped him for allowing himself to be misdirected by relying on police information that was full of mistakes and misunderstandings. Looked at in the highest moral terms, it is an indictment that would demand the resignation of the officer concerned but public servants these days are used by their political masters and mistresses that we really feel sorry for them too.

Sirisena Cooray had not been a particular fan of The Sunday Times and that feeling is mutual. But just as the Supreme Court did, we also look at the issues or the injustices involved in this case—not the person. That is the highest principle of justice—as symbolized by the blindfolded Statue of Justice, looking not on the person, however high or low he may be, but on the issue.

What we condemn is the clumsy illegal and arbitrary manner in which Mr. Cooray was hauled into a cobweb-filled abandoned state flat at Keppetipola Mawatha and kept there for more than two months without being told what the specific charges against him were. It is apparent that the police were, as often happens, acting on orders from the top, perhaps based on some fear or phobia not so much linked to any assassination but to an impeachment. Whatever intentions or interests he may be having, what happened to Mr. Cooray will not happen to any Sri Lankan citizen again due to the independence and integrity of those upright judges of the Supreme Court which has again reiterated the court’s position as a bastion of democracy in Sri Lanka.

Media and politics

It is both a laughing matter and a sad fact in Sri Lanka that the best way to sideline or bury an issue is to refer it to a committee. We hope a similar fate won’t befall the widely challenged Criminal Defamation, Press Council and other media laws that have been referred to a Parliamentary Select Committee.

In the afterglow of the PA victory a committee headed by the civil rights advocate R.K.W. Goonesekera was appointed to examine media laws. It recommended sweeping reforms but everything was swept under a carpet and the then Media Minister who pushed for the reforms though not-so vigorously was virtually thrown out of office.

In this era of not only the highest technology but also the highest degrees of professionalism in communication we see a situation where both in the West and the East power demands a high price from its practitioners and politicians must subject themselves to more media exposure than ordinary people. Higher the office or position, higher the responsibility to live according to the highest ideals of democracy. If the politicians cannot stand the heat they must get out of the kitchen.

In recent months especially there have been ever-growing and virtually unanimous demands from the media practitioners for significant amendments if not the repealing of various laws that regulate or more so strangulate the media.

We therefore hope the bi-partisan approach for the reform of these laws by both the government and the Opposition in Parliament will be beneficial to democratic life, as it will be swift. The loss of media freedom is the line between democracy and dictatorship.

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