Media Freedom, a myth?

The 2010 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Sri Lanka at the 158th position, very low on the rankings of Press Freedom. The latest attack on the Uthayan News Editor Gnanasundaram and the constant harassment of the media by the Rajapaksa regime will certainly ensure that Sri Lanka maintains such a bad image, in the global press freedom arena.

Udayan, Sri Lanka’s largest and most influential Tamil newspaper published in the north continuously exposed the electioneering malpractices of the Rajapaksa regime in the run up to the recently concluded local polls. It fearlessly told its readers how the state machinery including the military forces were being used – or rather misused – for the benefit of the ruling party during the election campaigns. Those concerned did not tolerate these exposures and the infringement of their authority.

However, the people in the north deserve our sincere gratitude for taking a bold decision and not being misguided by the fairytales of the Rajapaksa family, who lead the campaign in the North. The desperate Rajapaksa regime, following the verdict of the northerners, is now unleashing terror in the area – a repetition of history which led to a three-decade long ruthless armed conflict. Our leaders will never learn from history, however, that is a column for another day. Today the Media is our main focus.

The then leading opposition figure Mahinda Rajapaksa who tirelessly advocated human rights and press freedom as his political motto benefited greatly from the media during his Presidential campaign in 2005. Then he turned his guns against the same media that supported him – became a totally different individual, contradicting his own principles on human rights and press freedom. He can now boast of kidnapping eight journalists, 35 attacks on media men and women, 10 killings, 17 arrests, seven attacks on media houses and 77 incidents of harassment during his two term regime. No wonder we are in the 158th position of the world ranking under the able leadership of the Rajapaksa family.

The war is over and now the opportunity is ripe to strengthen democracy and establish good governance. All other aspects such as the economy and social harmony will follow. One of the major components in strengthening democracy is strengthening media freedom, are the Rajapaksas following the necessary path to ensure this freedom? Here are my thoughts on the matter.

No government should interfere in the media – let it be managed, controlled and regulated by itself. Instead, the government should create a conducive environment for the media to thrive through necessary laws and structures. This is how the matter was handled during the UNP regime in the early 2000’s.

In one classic example, we paved the way for the establishment a self regulatory mechanism through the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka as requested by the media industry that included the Editors Guild, Newspaper owners and the Working Journalists Association. We thought the state-run Press Council system was outdated and draconian, yet what has happened today? The Rajapaksas wanted the Press Council again to tame the media. There are only two countries in the world which have both systems in place – Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Imagine the ironic comparison – the Rajapaksas and the Mugabes.

Another example is access to information or rather the Freedom of Information Act. The then UNP regime accepted this concept as a policy through a Cabinet decision and got the legal draftsman to prepare the draft with support of media advocacy groups such as the Editors Guild, Free Media Movement and the working journalists. The process was disturbed by Chandrika’s ad hoc decision to pull the rug out from under the UNP regime. We displayed our commitment to press freedom by pushing this piece of legislation through a private member motion by our Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya a few months ago. But the entire world knows what happened and who defeated this media friendly move.

Thus, the sharp contrast between the two policies is crystal clear. But it is not only the government. Media should also be united to fight against repressive regimes. We have seen it in many countries where democracy is threatened on many fronts. In that case Sri Lanka should learn from Pakistan, Zimbabwe, South Africa and elsewhere.

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