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Media can still fight back

by Gamini Weerakoon

(August 10, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Where oh where is that tribe that once took great pride in calling themselves the watchdogs of the nation? Being still a member of that tribe – but now long in the tooth – we have watched helplessly as the battered and bashed newspaper canines whine, whelp, bark and run with the tails in between their legs seeking help and solace from government leaders.

These all knowing media leaders do not seem to know — or prefer to ignore the fact – that the person who is leading the thuggery is a government minister himself and that the government and its all powerful leader appear to stand by the offender — at least shown the least inclination to act against him.

Help from the gods


SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena on listening to media lamentations at a press conference last week has asked the media to place their trust in the divine for justice to be done.
‘He (Mervyn Silva) would be punished by the gods anyway,’ the Minister had assured the journalists. We hope we would not incur the displeasure of those believing in the divine, when we say that if gods do dispense justice effectively, Sri Lanka would have been a far better place. Perhaps Sirisena must have had in mind the wisdom of the Greek dramatist Euripides who said: ‘Those whom the gods wish to destroy first make them mad.’

While placing trust in gods is a human inclination – or failing as rationalists may say – our advice to journalists, their press barons and TV moguls is to look inwards and examine their own resources and capabilities. Is the pen no longer mightier than the sword or the club of a political thug?

Political patrons

Mervyn Silva is not a new phenomenon. There were many before him, like: Sothi Upali and a cranky brother- in-law of Rohana Wijeweera, a Dr. Fernando, who used to storm offices — particularly of newspaper editors whom he did not like. Sothi Upali and his thugs once held the management of a newspaper company at its headquarters for well over six hours.

There were lesser known thugs and criminals, who have thankfully been eliminated by their own kind. The billion rupee question (everything in Sri Lanka these days is measured in billions) is: How could they do all this and get away? The reasons are known to almost all of us but few dare speak out: political patronage.

Can any ordinary citizen get away with what Mervyn Silva has done? He has created many a rumpus in newspaper offices. He walked in with thugs into the government owned state TV headquarters, Rupavahini, and the director news was assaulted. Subsequent to this incident employees of Rupavahini were waylaid and attacked by ‘unidentified’ thugs.

The latest exploit is that he considers himself the uncrowned king of Kelaniya to which media personnel disliked by him cannot enter and do so at their own risk. The recent incident at Kelaniya where a TV crew covering the opening of a bridge was attacked took place in the presence of senior police officials. But this brazen act of thuggery has gone unnoticed by the guardians of the law.

Why did not the police act as they should have under the law? It could be presumed that they were instructed not to take any action.

Who is the officer ultimately responsible to take such action? The IGP of course but was he prevented from taking action? Who could have prevented him from acting? The head of all the armed forces and the police, the Commander-in-Chief, is President Mahinda Rajapakse. But what has this all powerful President done?

Of course onerous duties of state made his presence at the Beijing Olympics essential. Meanwhile Sirisena at the press conference attempts to placate journalists by saying: He (Mervyn Silva) has already drawn the wrath of the leadership and that the President had ‘advised’ Silva to refrain from ‘such activities’ in the future and added that ‘necessary action’ would be taken against him ‘in the future.’

Silva, we know, was warned once before by our all powerful President against such behaviour. That happened when Rupavahini employees threatened a strike following repeated attacks on their colleagues by unidentified thugs, whom the employees alleged were hired by Silva.

But Silva behaves like a naughty boy with an indulgent father, taking advice through one ear and letting it go out of the other.

With this kind of unbridled thuggery going on while the President is enjoying himself at the Olympic Games, we can well imagine what could happen during the election campaigns for the provincial councils of the North Central Province and Sabaragamuwa.

The solution is to implement the 13th Amendment by activating the Constitutional Council which President Rajapakse is artfully dodging. The reasons are obvious except to the most politically naïve.

Whatever the opposition and government may do, is the media an impotent paper tiger? The fact is that apart from some asinine protests on the streets, newspapers and other media have not acted collectively to demonstrate their power.

DR strategy

We recall a story related to us by veteran journalists way back in the mid ’60s when we joined the Ceylon Observer as a junior journalist.

D.R. Wijewardene who built up the mighty Sri Lankan publishing house, Lake House and was its chairman had been encouraging the efforts of former labour leader A.E. Goonesinghe who is still considered by some as the father of Sri Lankan trade unionism. Despite the support extended to him by Lake House newspapers, Goonesinghe at one stage had launched a tirade against Lake House.

Wijewardene, the veterans said, was a man of few words. And in this instance he did not utter any. He simply ordered blackening out Goonesinghe’s name and activities from all Lake House newspapers. That was a crippling blow because the only other publishing house was the British owned Times of Ceylon which had no inclination to support a labour movement in Sri Lanka. With that blackout commenced the downfall of Goonesinghe from which he never recovered.
In the light of the threats against the media the DR strategy is well worth consideration by all media barons, moguls and journalists. They could not only blackout all activities of the Mervyn Silva variety but also partially blackout government activity including those of publicity seeking politicians.

What better, effective protest could they have made than a ‘go slow’ of the recent SAARC jamboree? With the state media it could be difficult if not impossible but in recent times state media journalists have shown surprising spunk in the face of terrific odds. Even if the private media goes it alone, by recording only basic government activity, it could have positive results.
Could our media moguls, press barons and journalists emulate the DR example? Of course guts, courage and commitment to independent journalism is required. DR was a born newspaperman of that mould, not a media mudalali looking out for the next state bank loan.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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