14th December 1997


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‘Talking of today’s media freedom’

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Our Lobby Correspondent

The scenario which prevailed inside the Parliament Chambers when the fourth estate became the hot topic of debate was volcanic; and reminiscent of the American adage that the concern of the establishment towards media was similar to the professed love of Judas for Brother Jesus.

In their eagerness to score points, both the Opposition and Government benchers tried to outdo each other by trading insults with gusto and accusing each other of unpardonable sins perpetrated against media freedom- the hobby horse of many a Parliamentarian once out of power.

Opening the debate on the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunication and Media last Tuesday was former media minister Tyronne Fernando who advocated the abolition of criminal defamation as a stepping stone to the empowerment of the local media.

He said that former media minister Dharmasiri Senanayake undertook to amend media related laws, but editors were being repeatedly hauled before the courts, an aspect the Minister assured promptly that would be seriously looked into.

Complimenting the Parliamentary reporters for the difficult task of reporting sans break, he paused to make a complaint that sometimes these reports fell short of accuracy.

The bespectacled Parliamentarian claiming kinship to no lesser person than Veera Puran Appu said that the best comment on media freedom here was made by Article 19 which was a clear indictment on the PA.

Quoting an editorial of a Sunday newspaper he said that the editorialist has commented that the government was making sweeping generalizations about local media instead of challenging the defamatory articles individually. For instance, the new practice of calling journalists “traitors” etc., for fielding opposite view points. The administration is attempting to bar journalists from sites of bomb blasts and LTTE attacks.

They were prevented from entering the Kelanitissa power plant to file reports, and some were harassed.

Mildly censuring the young minister for his lack of prudence by calling star athlete Susanthika Jayasinghe a deranged female with looks of a Black American youth, he said,

“You must be a little cool and balanced. The media minister should be like the justice minister.

“Owing to your attitude towards this rural lass and the powers you possess, the private media is scared to report on her. After all, this is the media-friendly government which used the Prevention of Terrorism Act against TNL,” he said.

Condemning the PA for the covert action, he said that under the guise of war, it was stealthily moving towards a ban on military related news when the massive corruption was becoming apparent.

Criticising the government’s media policy, he said that one official at the SLRC, referred to as the hot potato, got exclusive treatment ranging from a special vehicle which transports him to the veda mahattaya for treatment, an employee to rub oil on him who gets paid over- time for playing ministering angel to his boss with a leg injury.

Mr.Fernando lodged his protest regarding a comment made by Minister Samaraweera recently regarding allowing the Opposition members to appear on state television after fifteen years.

“During my tenure as media minister, there were many instances where the Opposition members received publicity through state media, and I have letters from the Prime Minister to prove this, complimenting me on my policy which she termed as a clear departure from the previous practice” he said, to which the Minister retorted curtly that this was the first time under normal circumstances.

Affable Dharmasiri Senanayake rose next to defend the government and his young successor. With his irrepressible sense of humour evident, he quipped that like Tyronne, he had the privilege of being a “former media minister.” Outlining several programmes he launched for expanding media freedom of the country, he claimed that this concept has plummeted to ghastly levels during the UNP, the reason why journalists who were apolitical endeavoured for the formation of a new administration under the PA.

Conveniently forgetting that media freedom was not a thing that was handed over by state to the media on a platter, he said: “We created the National Media Institute with the best of interests,” he said, earning the remark from Tyronne whether it was for emancipation of media he had in mind when appointing the President as appointing authority.

He said that the PA was interested in evolving a comprehensive media policy, as indicated by Minister Samaraweera who has shown keenness by appointing the Select Committee on media reforms.

The PA has strived to evolve a pension and insurance schemes, and had planned to provide medical and duty free concessions for purchasing necessary equipment.

But defending his colleague was foremost in his mind when he said that public opinion was way ahead of politicians. “People do not accept the various twists and interpretations given by sections of the media, for people sift and weigh.”

In support of censorship, the former media minister added that restricting military related news was not a move to curb media. During the first and second world wars too, this practice was adapted emphasizing the need for national interest to override media freedom and everything else.

Quoting Lord Read, the founder of the BBC, he said that when a marine strike was on in London, Lord Reed has said that media freedom took backstage in times of crisis.

Obviously forgetting the rhetoric repeated as defenders of free media during Opposition days and holding Sathyagrahas with a vengeance, Minister Senanayake put his foot in the mouth when he said:

“George Bernard Shaw said that freedom is responsibility, and the PA did not appreciate the freedom of the wild ass, a comment applicable to certain sections of the media”.

Kegalle Parliamentarian R.A.D.Sirisena was the next firing his salvos, claiming that the manifestation of the PA’s much promised media freedom was suing all newspapers under the sun, assaulting editors and arresting under the PTA.

In a dramatic mood was UNP’s Sarath Kongahage , who said that when a dark skinned person like himself was on his feet, he desired the presence of the “fairest of the fair” minister.

In the history of world media, a government has lost elections due to bringing laws restricting media. Silva and Mahanama Samaraweera were the only people who opposed this move, and it was ironical that Mahanama’s son was at the helm now and doing his best to restrict media.

Highlighting what he called the dismal failure by the PA to act in a just and fair manner towards people who have dedicated themselves to media in their various capacities, he alleged that Kumara Ratnayake of the SLBC died due to mental unhappiness.

His abilities were not made use of, and veteran broadcaster Palitha Perera quit due to infighting. Similarly, all discarded Lake house journalists were transferred to “Janatha”, what is today a pool of writers than a newspaper, thus earning the name “Jurassic Park, he thundered.

Having concluded his animated conversation with Minister Mangala Samaraweera, it was none other than burly Sports Minister with the subdued Susanthika controversy giving him a restful look, who spoke next.

Minister Dissanayake having obviously put their squabbles aside, reiterated the PA’s commitment to media freedom, a comment substantiated by Kurunegala PA Parliamentarian T.B.Ekanayake.

In a merciless attack on the media policy of the previous regime, he said that the UNP had no moral right to talk of media freedom having done everything-from killing to abducting journalists. In contrast, today there were television programmes which unleashed scathing attacks on the President of the country which are unhindered.

Unearthing a few UNP skeletons was Education Minister Richard Pathirana who prodded the UNPers memory about the plight of the dramatist who wrote “Who is he- What is he doing?, and how he disappeared from the face of this earth.

“Some newspapers gave ball by ball accounts of parties the President never attended. Some sections of the media conducted image promotion campaigns, and this meant destroying those they do not like,” he said.

But the most virulent outburst came from Mervyn Silva who caused a commotion in the hollowed precincts with the liberal use of words no longer considered unparliamentary. Heaping scorn on Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, he said that he was an apology of a minister.

Every time his mike got switched off, he responded with a vituperative attack on the smiling minister who was showing a rare streak of good humour and discipline.

Most of his comments, were deleted from the Hansard

It was Richard Pathirana who made a timely intervention to ask whether it was not he who insulted the journalistic tribe by stating that their loyalties were bought over a bottle of arrack, resulting in reporters staging a walk out in protest.

Dr. Sarath Amunugama winding up the debate for the Opposition called upon the Media Minister to wipe the slate clean by withdrawing all the cases filed against media.

Making glowing references to the minister’s efforts to liberalise media with law reforms, he said that the government held a record of litigation against editors, and a vendetta with Iqbal Athas.

“Withdraw all plaints against journalists at a time when media laws are being seriously reviewed.

Taking your considerations into account, include privacy laws with defined limits. Do away with this damnable heritage of mistrust,” he said .

Displaying diplomacy in his concluding remarks was fashion designer turned minister Mangala Samaraweera who complimented Dr. Amunugama for a speech similar to a breath of fresh air after listening to gutter snipes.

The Minister pledged the speedy implementation of the R.K.W. Goonasekera and Dalton de Silva reports for improving media.

In a candid reply, he said there was no intention of broadbasing the Lake House yet, whilst reiterating the government’s commitment to creating a vibrant media culture founded on ethical considerations.

“Facts are sacred, and their is no freedom above this” he said, adding that for the first time in many years, people were experiencing the taste of true media freedom.

In retrospect, if all the pledges made by the people’s representatives in this blessed country were translated into action, Sri Lanka should have had the much promised vibrant media culture-not a gift from the state, but a truly won right of the people.

Human rights: let the people decide

By Ameen Izzadeen

Talking human rights while the stomach is empty makes no sense. This could be a genuine defence of a developing country whose human rights record is under criticism from the west and the United Nations.

But the question that is being asked is whether development, religion and culture could be cited as defences against violations of human rights.

When one society insists on the adoption of its interpretation of human rights by another society, it amounts to imposition of one’s will on another. It is an act that shows no respect for other people’s right to interpret human rights. What has been presented to us in a package is a western concept of human rights.

As the Universal Declaration on Human Rights enters its 50th year and 1998 is declared by the UN as the year of human rights, let’s stir this debate once again. The time is also opportune because it was on Wednesday that the world marked the human rights day.

If human rights are universal as the 1948 UN declaration implies, the argument that they vary according to culture and beliefs of a people does not hold water. Human rights are human rights whether the human being is a Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, westerner or tribal. Every human being is born with human rights. They are rights that cannot be given or withdrawn at will by any legal system or state. This brings forth an extreme view that man has the right to do anything at will — to kill, to punish, to fornicate, to rob, to intrude, etc. — a situation that leads to lawlessness. To stem this, society or the state is endowed with the right to define limits to people’s rights in the greater interest of people themselves.

This involves surrender of those rights that are detrimental to society to a body called state.

The problem here is who decides as to what rights are detrimental to society. This is where political philosophy, religion and culture come into play. It is the society which decides what rights remain with people and what rights are to be restricted. Peace and prosperity follow when there is consensus among people on this — chaos and instability when no consensus.

The world we live in is not homogeneous. Thousands of societies with different social systems exist and they see things differently. Thus what may be a casual habit in one society can be a despicable sin in another. Sexual promiscuity and pre-marital or extra marital sex are tolerated in the west but in an Islamic country they may warrant the death penalty. Incest is condemned in many societies, but among certain tribes in Africa it is regarded as a father’s right. Profaning a religion is covered under freedom of expression in the west but it is shunned and punished in many societies in the east. Thus it is very difficult to formulate a comprehensive universal concept of human rights.

When one society insists on the adoption of its interpretation of human rights by another society, it amounts to imposition of one’s will on another. It is an act that shows no respect for other people’s right to interpret human rights. What has been presented to us in a package is a western concept of human rights.

There is a school, however, which thinks differently. They point out that we all feel we have a right to life, liberty and property. We have the right to food, shelter, freedom of speech, to practise our religion or to abstain from any belief. We all seek freedom from torture.

These aspirations are universal. There is nothing in these rights that is dependent upon a culture or religion.

Moreover the adherents of this school point out that countries which define human rights in terms of cultural relativism could have made reservations when human rights covenants were being drawn up. The striking fact is that no reservation based on culture, religion and political philosophy has gone into these covenants.

But problems crop up here when human rights are dichotomized into political and civil rights and social and economic rights.

While political and civil rights do not require financial commitments by the state, social and economic rights do. The right to education is regarded as a fundamental right of every human being. But how many countries do possess the economic prowess to build schools, pay teachers’ salaries and provide free books. Take for instance, Sri Lanka. Tens of thousands of children have been denied access to education due to socio-economic and political factors such as war and poverty.

To honour social and economic rights what is necessary is sound economic order. This is linked to political stability. To achieve this certain human rights need to be restricted, the development-minded third world leaders argue.

It is here the developed and the developing countries lock horns. It is noteworthy that no two developing countries make human rights a big issue in their relations — unless of course there are some political reasons behind them.

Also certain rights have to be foregone at certain stage in the development of society. The west, for instance, employed women and children in coal mines, denuded forests and colonised Asia and Africa, plundering their wealth and denying their people’s human rights. The West could become the preachers of human rights only after they reached a certain level of development.

Now it is the turn of the third world countries to develop. So they must be allowed to do so without aid being linked to human rights and sanctions imposed for political reasons. Of course, the third world must not deny its people the basic rights while asking them to sacrifice some of the rights for the sake of development.

Some may suggest that the Singaporean or Malaysian approach with some modification may suit many third world countries. But it should be the people of each country who must have the right to decide the basic human rights based on their own experience and aspirations for the development of their country. For, it is the people who suffer due to violations of human rights and it is they who are oppressed by the state on which is thrust the responsibility of safeguarding and ensuring human rights.

Latest Rwanda camp attack echoes 1994 genocide

MUDENDE, Rwanda, Saturday - The latest massacre of refugees in northwest Rwanda sounded an echo of the 1994 genocide in which over 800,000 people died in a three-month slaughter.

As thousands of Tutsis slept in their makeshift tents at Mudende camp late on Wednesday night, a gang of Hutus slipped among them and began hacking and clubbing them to death.

Some 271 people were killed in the massacre and 227 injured. Most had been beaten with nail-studded clubs or chopped with machetes.

Mothers were rolled up with their children in plastic roof sheeting and set ablaze; a group cowering in a tractor shed were slashed to death, their hands and arms chopped off as they tried to protect themselves.

Many also died as the murderers exchanged grenade and gunfire with Rwandan army troops who later came to the rescue.

In the 1994 genocide, thousands of Rwandan Hutu extremist Interahamwe militiamen, aided by the Hutu-dominated army of the time, fell upon their Tutsi countrymen in an orgy of bloodshed.

Wednesday’s attackers were probably the same extremists, but now operating from hiding places in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. The victims this time were ethnic Tutsis from Congo living in refugee camps in Rwanda.

“This is genocide, pure and simple,” said Rwandan Patriotic Army Colonel Nyamwasa Kayumba. “They were killed only because they were Tutsis.”

The Rwandan Army was defensive about whether it could have done more to prevent Wednesday’s carnage.

Kayumba said 72 troops were guarding the camp when it was attacked and that they were quickly supported by a company of around 120 men from a nearby garrison. The battle lasted just 15 minutes, he said.

But some survivors told Reuters that the camp guards might have fled when the attack started, as they appeared to fight back only when reinforced hours later.

Kayumba said the number of Rwandan troops and their methods was not important. The issue was “acknowledging the genocidal nature of the attack”.

The method of the killers and the extent of the slaughter suggested they had more than a quarter of an hour to carry out the attack. Most victims were slashed or clubbed to death and their murderers were untroubled initially by any counter-offensive by well-armed Rwandan troo

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