"The status quo has to be changed and we intend to ask our judges to do something about it" declared an angry civil rights activist cum lawyer last week. Representing a Colombo based human rights watchdog group with a reputation for impartial activism, he expressed his concern over the illegal status of the state print media behaviour, Lake House, in short staccato bursts.
"This has become a lost cause no one is interested in it. The media itself appears to be largely unconcerned. But Lake House has been run for the past twenty-four years on an obviously illegal basis. We thought things would change under the present Government. We were wrong. Now we can only try to enforce change in the one way left", he said A day later, his remarks were echoed by a shareholder of the institution under fire, himself a respected and senior journalist. For years, he had been calling successive panjandrums in power to book for falling back on their promises to correct the wrongs of the past.
"Lake House newspapers have remained virtually hijacked by government in power, all ironically continuing to proclaim their commitment to the freedom of the media while openly misusing these papers for their own political purposes while in power", he pointed out.
"If no political leader or policy maker is willing to let Lake House out of the Government kennel, the courts is the only option left", he added.
Both preferred to remain unidentified for the moment, but planned to push ahead with their appeal to the Sri Lankan higher judiciary.
"At least, the matter would be resolved one way or another. The present situation is a monstrosity, a shame on both the law and our public conscience," they said.
They pointed out that though it has been said that Lake House was nationalized or "taken over" in 1973 (i.e., the government had vested control of the private company in itself), the 1973 law did not in fact, so provide. It specified that Lake House be broad-based, the so-called nationalization was only means as a prelude to the shares being distributed to the public. The latter step was however not taken and the 1973 law remains suspended in midair, with only half of its conditions being implemented. In effect, this is what is being presently sought to be remedied. When asked as to whether, if the action succeeds, it would not lead to a worse situation as the law gives the Minister considerable power in determining the shareholders, the retort came quickly.
"That possibility is there but at least, it would be more honest. And how blatant can the government be in the allocation of shares? It will be forced to come out into the open."
The move to bring the issue before court comes in the context of a wider national interest in laying down guidelines for a freer, responsive and responsible media in the country. A Parliamentary Select Committee is presently going into questions of media law reform, following the recent abolition of legislation that gave Parliament the power to punish journalists for breach of parliamentary privilege. This power will now be exclusively exercised by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court itself has been willing in recent times, to lay down some points that could be kept in mind when formulating national media policy. In one recent Sri Lanka Broadcasting Authority Bill case, the Court emphasized the fundamental principle that an authority set up to regulate the broadcast media, both public and private must be totally independent from the Government. The Supreme Court moreover did not agree that state bodies like the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) could be treated differently from private stations.
"Such distinctions drawn in terms of expected standards of performance as well as accountability for the maintenance of these standards are invidious and offensively discriminatory....... we have formed the opinion that there is no rational basis for treating state bodies with special favour on these matters", the court said. Both private and state broadcasting bodies should therefore have the same rights and be subject to the same conditions under which they operate. Such conditions are permissible, provided they are set down by law, and do not depend on ministerial fiat.
The Supreme Court Judgement was a clear warning to the Government that they being state media institution nonetheless, political patronage cannot be a matter of course. Accountability, integrity and some measure of independent decision-making has to be established. No state media institution can be looked upon as the plaything of any government in power.
All this of course, sits oddly with Media Ministers Mangala Samaraweera's repeated assertions that the Government needs Lake House as the only means of channeling its views to the public. Just last week, the Minister reportedly elaborated on these views to representatives of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, adding the pithy remark that it was for this reason that the Government could not afford to broad-base Lake House "immediately." Minister Samaraweera's explanation had been summed up in somewhat more picturesque style a few years back by former SLFP front ranker, Justice Ministry Secretary Nihal Jayawickreme: "The (Lake House) newspapers appear to have become so much a part of a government's entourage, a sort of auxiliary bodyguard, that no government feels safe or secure without it... unlike the stodgy government gazette, a newspaper actually prints pictures and publishes interesting stories to accompany them. If everyone around them is beginning to criticize it is a comforting thought that one could wake up in the morning, secure in the knowledge that there would be at least one newspaper to proclaim one's own assassination of oneself."
Mr. Jayawickreme was of course, one of the chief players in arranging the scenes for the SLFP 'take over' in 1973.
Minister Mangala Samaraweera's increasing candour in expressing his views on the status of Lake House is a good indication however, of the extent to which the Election Manifesto of his own party is being disregarded as an irrelevant document. This explanation given without fear or favour contradicts the PA manifesto on two very important points.
Firstly that Lake House shares be distributed to the public as laid down in the 1973 law, and secondly that state media would be freed form governmental/political control, and a free democratic media culture be promoted.
Minister Samaraweera has predictably being much more pugnacious than his predecessor, former Media Minister Dharamasiri Senanayake. In fact, the former Minister had appointed a committee to examine ways and means by which Lake House could be broadbased. Submitting its report after eleven sittings, the committee comprising of well-known lawyers, legal academic and journalists concluded with specific recommendations. 20% of ANCL shares were to be reserved and allocated free of charge to employees with five years service, 15% of the shares to be vested in a five-body trust composed of nominees of the National University V.C8, the Organisation of Professional Associations, media personnel bodies, the Constitutional Council and the Public Trustee. 4.87% shares held by individuals presently to remain intact. The balance 60% shares to be sold on the Stock Exchange through a public share issue.
The committee pointed out that there was a national consensus on the broad basing of Lake House, stemming from the belief that this once great national asset had lost credibility and journalistic integrity due to state control.
"It had in fact, sadly earned the derogatory sobriquet of Bere Gedera Pacha Paththara Mola," the Committee said. It went on to stress that the prolonged resting of the shares of Lake House in the hands of the Public Trustee was illegal, could not continue, and that all governments since 1973 must be censored for failure to give effect to the law, and for treating Lake House as a nationalized institution.
The report was made public and some months later lapsed into oblivion. The official explanation given was that Lake House trade unions had opposed the move to give effect to the report. Thus it was that the dust began to settle on the proposals to broadbase ANCL until Minister Mangala Samaraweera's somewhat incautious remarks recently began to stir up tempers again.
For some, the whole story of Lake House is a good reason to view the current deliberations of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Media Law Reform with some cynicism. Questions are being asked as to whether the entire process might not turn out to be a delaying tactic, with very little being accomplished at the end.
In 1994 after the elections of the PA to power, committees were appointed to look into matters of media reform. There was no talk then of a Parliamentary Select Committee going into anything further. Representations were called for by the public and specific recommendations were made by each of the committees. What happened to the reports? Some were not even made public, until a few months back, like the RKW. Goonesekere report on Media Law reform.
Now, the entire process is being repeated with the Select Committee again going into questions of proposed Law reform, and calling for representations. It is being argued that if more details were necessary to flush out the board principles of the Goonesekere report, the task might have been entrusted to a team of lawyers and legal academics. Whether politicians of either party, accustomed to looking at media concerns in a narrow politicised manner can really accomplish anything significant remains to be seen.
The first impressions are not misleading at all. Fine roads; building activity eve- rywhere; ceaseless traffic; a mixture of ethnic groups who nonetheless mesh together; the only guns you see are on the hip of traffic Police; food that is very Malaysian, and yet, very Sri Lankan. Very Malaysian food being very Sri Lankan?
The similarity is intriguing: Malay food is a combination of coconut based cooking which is very Sri Lankan to taste. Yet Malay food is not Malay: it is Malaysian - as is Key Teow; as is fish head curry ; as is Nasi Lemak. The food reflects what Malaysia is. Very Malay, yet is a blend of all: Malay, Chinese and Indian - old blending on a common base. It is a country where, irrespective of all races, Bahasa Melayu is spoken by the Chinese, some 35% of the population and by the Indians, some 12%.
The formula of a making sure that a disgruntled majority cannot exist as much as a disgruntled minority, is the format on which this country has been guided by Malaysian leaders. This combined with a vision of economic development which taps the entrepreneurial action while providing the infrastructure wherewithal for the economy to crank up, Malaysia is developing a better life for her people.
Tun Razzak laid the foundations for this development process and for the blending of the populace, inherited from a history of mass migration of Chinese and Indians.
Malays were laid back, with centuries of neglect; the Chinese had a stranglehold of the economy, with Malays doing all the menial work. A disgruntled majority, a predicament partly self-inflicted, saw a minority enjoying the fruits of their labours. Sounds familiar?
With the race riots which rent the country, the Malaysian leaders were set on a course of development which ensured jobs for all and a tolerant live and let live policy which enabled, provided that all confirmed to a common bonding of language.
Bahasa Melayu is that bond, Bahasa itself has a familiar ring to the Sri Lankan ear along with a host of Sanskrit based words; Istrhri; vanitha, guru, desa; nama, utura, pustaka, and so on.
The minorities preserve their lifestyles yet enjoy a closeness which language can bring. Not one but two: Bahasa and English. With this Malaysia faces the future and takes it on.
The Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamed put this policy best when he said: "From our own experience in Malaysia, we know that attention has always been paid to the delicate balance of interests of all peoples concerned.
In our kind of society, the element of a healthy respect for others is vital. Tolerance, compromise, confidence-building, power sharing, good will, cooperation and a good understanding of the sensitivities are important in our political culture.
"Those living in plural societies have very little choice but to live together, accommodate and respect each other and cooperate for the benefit of all."
Malaysia was blessed with great leaders who saw the future, developed the vision to contain the differing demands of the various communities, recognized the need to accommodate the wishes of all in a practical manner.
To achieve this, they discriminated in favour of a impoverished majority. The bhumiputra program has been hailed as well as been subject of western criticism. However, the tacit acceptance of the minority has been made possible because they have what they want most, jobs and an acceptance of their way of life.
If Malaysia Boleh, why not Sri Lanka?
If Malaysia, which just 17 years ago was worse off than Sri Lanka, can achieve, if Malaysia Boleh, why not Sri Lanka?
That is a question which all Sri Lankans should ask themselves at this juncture of the state visit of the President of Sri Lanka to Malaysia.
* Boleh, in Bahasa Malaysia means 'Can'!
(The writer is Sri Lanka's famed film and television director and administrator, who now lives in Malaysia. He is the General Manager of Astro Shaw Sdn. Bhd, and Astro Productions Sdn. Bhd, both subsidiaries of the Measat Broadcast Network Systems Sdn. Bhd, Asia's first Direct to Home satellite broadcaster.)
"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning" (Psalms I37, 5)
Leah Rabin, the widow of Yitzhak Rabin, has not forgotten Jerusalem nor the assassination of her husband, war hero and Prime Minister of Israel when he was addressing a rally in the holy city. The assassin was no member of Hamas or Hizbullah but a young man who belonged to a secret Jewish extremist group. (The western media use the term "fundamentalist' to describe similar extremist Islamic movements).
Candidate Benjamin Netanyahu destined to be the leader of a multi-party alliance, campaigned on peace and security. It had the unequivocal support of a resurgent Jewish extremism operating through secret 'cells'. Yigal Amir, the young man who shot dead Prime Minister Rabin, a much-decorated war hero, was a member who regularly holds "classes" on Jewish history, Zionism and the destiny of the "chosen people".
In an interview, Leah Rabin gave the weekly Le Journal Du Dimanche, she said that Netanyahu's success at the polls and after did not surprise her. The "religious, nationalist fanatics who called for my husband's murder" had actively campaigned for Bibi Netanyahu. "We must do something" she added. "We cannot stand with our arms crossed while Netanyahu's government goes about systematically destroying peace and killing hope".
Another woman, far more powerful, was soon to give Prime Minister Netanyahu the same message. The visit of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Israel brought quick results.... another demonstration that the US-Israeli relations were in fact a very "special relationship". US candidates, Congressmen, Senators and the white House itself recognised the importance of Jewish money, (campaign contributions) the Jewish vote and well established lobbies, operating in Washington. (Perhaps the most informative personal account on the Jewish lobby is "They Dare To Speak Out', a book written by Paul Findley, a Congressman for 22 years). In foreign policy too, Israel served American interests in the oil-rich Middle-East, particularly after Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution toppled the Shah of Iran, known to the Iranian masses as 'the American Shah'. Equally significant was the 'growing Soviet threat' in this strategic region. Israel was a perfect instrument of the strategy of "containment" containing Soviet (Communist) expansionism in a turbulent region which served the interests of US oil cartels a regular supply of oil at a "reasonable price" to American cartels, while American oil could be kept in reserve.
The Cold War is over; the Soviet Union is no more and thousands of Jewish families have migrated to Israel. The number was large enough for these Russian migrants to play a part in the closely contested polls battle. Washington has no reason to alienate Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to keep Israel happy. It is these new post-Cold War realities that have helped shape American policy on the Middle-East, Israel most of all.
On two questions, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, pleased the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) and its "president", PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Elections were held last year in the area where the Palestinians thought they could establish a mini-state or a state that would be recognised by the Arab League and the Non-aligned movement. (It is this plan which brought President Arafat to Colombo, and other Asian capitals.) How far will the new U.S. policy in the Middle-East serve Arab, and Palestinian interests? The answer to that question will also influence, if not decide, US-Israeli relations, particularly if a right-wing, anti-Arab party or coalition holds office in Jerusalem.
The complex, quite uncertain situation is seen by President Hosni Mubarak's advisors in Cairo as a "window of opportunity". After Nasser, Egypt, the most important Arab state, has been quite staunchly pro-West.
Though Prime Minister Netanyahu has visited Cairo, he has not cooperated with President Mubarak on confidence-building measures. But the Egyptian leader pressed on regardless. Before Ms. Albright arrived in Israel, Egypt hosted King Hussein of Jordan, another key player, and Mr. Arafat. Predictably, the three leaders stressed the need to implement the Oslo accord which was based on a "land-for-peace". Probably to meet the Israeli demand on an end to "terrorist attacks", a major American concern too, the statement blamed "extremists on all sides". By that time, Israeli police had arrested over 100 Palestinians. The list evidently was prepared by Israel's domestic intelligence agency.
Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition is founded on one of the two major parties in independent Israel - the rightwing Likud, the traditional rival labour. The hardliners in the Likud leadership have always argued that the Oslo accord was a "sell-out" by the 'socialist' Labour party of Shimon Peres. (This was one reason why Peres, a dedicated Labourite all his life, much of its spent in the Histradut, the country's huge trade union federation, was the favourite target of Likud, prompting Peres to make the supreme sacrifice. He invited Yitzhak Rabin to assume command of Labour, once Rabin had agreed to enter the parliamentary battlefield.
Hamas, Hizbullah and other smaller but militant groups, believe that the Israeli leadership, long before independence, respected only firepower..... an eye for an eye. The dramatic intervention of these groups recently and the suicide bombing in the heart of the capital have automatically strengthened the 'eye-for-an-eye' hardliners. Netanyahu seized the opportunity to accuse Yasser Arafat and the P.A. of turning a blind eye on terrorism or worse, helping these terrorists stealthily. "The basic deal in Oslo was that we gave the Palestinians territory and they gave us a pledge to fight the terrorist organisations from that territory. That pledge has not been kept". So, no more land will be given to the P.A. until president Arafat launches a counter-terrorist campaign.
Israel has established a 'security zone' in southern Lebanon to protect Israeli settlements on Israel's northern border. The long-range guns keep pounding areas which Israel claims are Hizbullah hideouts, on Lebanese soil. The Hizbullah, the Israeli defence ministry claims, is helped by Iran, an allegation dismissed by the Iranian authorities. What it does mean however is that radical Islamic groups have seized the initiative, while the P.L.O., the P.A. and President Arafat are caught in a nutcracker. It is to save both by promoting (and under-writing) a more stable settlement that president Clinton sent Madeleine Albright to Israel.
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