The Sri Lankan Media Mafia - 1

By Victor Ivan

(March 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Ravaya editor Victor Ivan initiated a debate in his newspaper last month about the Sri Lankan media. The title of his controversial article was ‘Is only politics uncivilized’, its import being that the media, too, can be found wanting when it comes to propriety and even plain decency. Ivan argued that a lumpen, uncivilized aspect was to be seen not just in politics, but in the mass media in Sri Lanka as well.He has taken as an example, an instance from the early 1990’s where one of the so called ‘alternative’ (tabloid style) newspapers of that era, (The precursor of the latter day websites) reported that president Premadasa had participated in an occult rite to bring him good luck where he had been bathed in milk by seven naked virgins. Within a couple of days, this story had spread throughout the country. It had been concocted by opponents of president Premadasa to ridicule him. Shortly afterwards, the press that printed the ‘alternative’ newspaper in question was attacked and damaged by an unidentified gang.

Ivan says that the attack on the press got wide publicity, but not the wrong report that preceded it. He argues that it was not feasible for the president to seek legal redress because of the nature of the report and that seeking legal redress would have brought him even more into ridicule. He characterizes this kind of reporting as ‘sahasika varthakaranaya’ (barbaric reportage) and in his opinion, the greater wrong was committed not by the gang that attacked the press but by the alternative newspaper that published the scurrilous report. Ivan argues in that article that journalists have a right to report what can be proved or for what some evidence exists, but not fabricated stories that cannot be proved. He says that we see the latter occurring often in our media. Ivan says that this too should be debated and discussed to the same extent as attacks on the media. His argument being that while killing journalists is wrong, for journalists to literally ‘assassinate’ other people through their writings is also completely unacceptable.

There was a rejoinder to this article written by Sanath Balasooriya, the former president of the Professional Journalists’ Association who is now in self imposed exile in Germany. In this article Balasooriya refers to Ivan as a ‘purohita’ to the ‘rajathuma’ (or a courtier to the King) and he argues that Ivan is trying to justify the use of strong arm tactics against the media. Balasooriya argues that those offended by what journalists write should seek redress within the law and he accuses Ivan of justifying the law of the jungle. Balasooriya asks what would happen if everyone begins to take the law into his own hands, and says that Ivan is holding a brief for the government.

What follows are excerpts of Ivan’s rejoinder to Balasooriya.

Until he left the country, Sanath Balasuriya served as the President of the Professional Journalists’ Association. He was also a major figure in the Independent Journalistic Movement. His voice often surpassed that of all others at picketing campaigns connected with media freedom during the first four years of the Rajapaksa regime. He was an individual who had exhibited his face prominently on TV screens when media coverage was given for such picketing campaigns.

He could also be described as the hero who gave leadership to the so called ‘Rupavahini Revolution’, using the opportunity to get his face exhibited to the world making vociferous statements during the live TV coverage given during the crisis situation that occurred at the Rupavahini Corporation following an incident where a Deputy Minister and his supporters entered the Rupavahini premises and attacked one of the officers working there.

The wisdom of leaders is tested during crisis situations. For him, the incident at Rupavahini Corporation involving the Deputy Minister was a source of amusement. During this incident he spoke like a leader who had inspired a great revolution. He did not look beyond his nose, choosing instead to revel in the instant thrill that he derived from the events of that day. He lacked the wisdom to realize what would happen eventually after the Deputy Minister and his supporters left the premises, beaten and soaked in urine. In the face of the subsequent incidents that followed, which were rather serious, our hero was rendered helpless and reduced to the level of a deflated leader. Wisdom dawns not through revolutionary displays on TV screens. It is not a faculty that grows spontaneously, but a virtue to be cultivated and constantly promoted. For that one should read appropriate books and also associate with people with wisdom.

Sanath Balasuriya is known to the people as a journalist not because of his writings but because of the valour he had displayed on TV channels. Even before he left Sri Lanka, I mentioned his name in two or three articles written by me. Of course, the comments that I made about him were not complimentary. He did not respond to those comments. Perhaps, he would have felt that it was better to remain silent until his application for political asylum was processed. First of all, I wish to congratulate him on having been able to obtain political asylum in Germany.

A different era

Even during the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime, the killing of media personnel took place from time to time. I, too, had to face the threat of assassination. A red double cab used to follow me in the evenings. It was due to my driver’s skill that one attempt made by this double cab to ram my vehicle was foiled. On another occasion, my vehicle came under an acid attack. A gas bomb was lobbed at my office. There were numerous threatening e-mails, telephone calls and letters.

But I believe there is a vast difference between that time and the present day in the way we respond to such threats. The threats or warnings that we used to get those days were not immediately exaggerated into sensational and major news items. We remained silent on the assumption that most such threats were mere attempts to intimidate us. Even the attempts to assault us were not always turned into sensational news.

Those days, even though there were threats against journalists, there was no scheme to provide them with safe houses. There was no scheme to reimburse telephone bills and travelling and entertainment expenses. There was no scheme to provide air tickets to travel overseas and take care of other expenses when there was a threat to security. Thus, when threats become a means of obtaining large sums of money, it is natural that threats are manufactured artificially in order to obtain access to funding. This is what is happening now.

In the old days, our decision to struggle against repression was based not on the funds that could be obtained from foreign sources, but on our understanding of injustice and justice and what was good or bad. Our struggles were not aimed at earning money. On the contrary, they were funded with the pittance in our own pockets. We never thought of exploiting the trouble in the country to secure political asylum for ourselves or our family members in foreign countries.

Even when we had the power or ability to make recommendations and issue certificates, we never misused it to oblige our relations, friends or to earn money. It is sad to note that the freedom of expression has become a mean of earning money by iniquitous means. In the 1990s I investigated the assassinations of Rohana Kumara and Kumar Ponnambalam. But this was not done with the ulterior motive of making money. All expenses incurred in this regard were spent out of my own pocket.

Balasuriya wants to know why I do not show the same interest that I displayed in the past in investigating matters. My response to his question is that we did those things voluntarily and free of charge. At that time, there was no group receiving salaries, enjoying various privileges and facilities, to perform this duty. But today, as there is a salaried and privileged group which includes Sanath Balasuriya to do the job, we remain silent observing how they do these things for a huge salary which we did free of charge in the past.

The funds provided to the Free Media Movement to investigate the disappearance of people like Prageeth and sustain their families have now been suspended by the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) as these funds have been misused and squandered by Sanath Balasuriya and his gang for their personal benefit. Rs. 8.5 million was allocated by the SLPI to the Free Media Movement for the protection of independent journalists in 2008. This amount was scheduled to be released in four installments. The first installment of Rs. 2,132,062.25 was released on 29 May 2008. A similar amount was provided as the second installment on 6th August 2008. The SLPI requested the submission of details of disbursements to release the third installment. After taking a long time, this gang was able to account for only an amount of Rs. 1,980,445.16. They were unable to account for the balance amount of Rs. 2,283,679.34. The SLPI has observed that most of the receipts submitted to cover expenses were unacceptable and bogus. Following this, the SLPI cancelled its agreement with the Free Media Movement and requested the return of Rs. 2,283,679.34 which had not been accounted for. Up to now they have failed to return this money. (See the second part of article tomorrow for more details - Ed) Was this not the real reason why Sanath Balasuriya and others fled the country? There had been real threats to some members of this gang. But they continued to live in the country. It was only after the SLPI commenced an internal audit in respect of the accounts of the Free Media Movement and raised questions that this gang fled the country. The person in charge of the funds, who is not a journalist, also fled the country about two weeks ago.

Now I would like to pose the following questions to Sanath Balasuriya. What is the amount you have obtained personally from this fund for your safe house, your meals and drinks, and as travelling expenses? What is the amount you have not yet accounted for after receiving money from this fund? Let us forget for a moment the large scale fraud that took place in the Free Media Movement—The Movement received Rs. 26 million for various projects. Can we condone the misuse of funds given to the Free Media Movement to look after the interests of people like Prageeth and sustain the families of disappeared journalists?

Can Balasooriya let us know how much he has received from various projects of the Free Media Movement, in addition to the salary he received from Lake House without doing any work?

Vagrant reporting

We now come to the culture of ‘vagrant’ reporting. Even though Balasooriya has insinuated that I have justified the attack (in the early 1990s) on the printing press that printed the ‘alternative’ newspaper that carried the story of seven naked virgins bathing President Premadasa with milk, I did nothing of the sort. However I did not say that it was unjust either. I did not say so because I frankly do not know a reasonable stance to be adopted in reporting such incidents. What I did was to highlight the danger involved in such baseless reporting.

Such unwarranted reporting has become the order of the day. This is also the point that I want to raise about the present disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda. As Balasooriya states, I have never attempted to suggest even indirectly that Prageeth has gone into hiding of his own free will. I do not know who was responsible for the publication of that hideous article relating to alleged sexual behaviour of a minister published on a certain website. But some of Prageeth’s friends I spoke to said that it was Prageeth’s work. Prageeth worked for General Sarath Fonseka. A friend of Prageeth who was questioned by the CID in connection with some scurrilous pamphlets written for Fonseka by Prageeth during the presidential election told me that the handwriting in the said pamphlets were similar to that of Prageeth.

The main objective of the article that I wrote in this regard was to highlight the point that this vagrant form of journalism has contributed immensely to the repression being directed against media personnel. Balasooriya and his gang should be held responsible for promoting this destructive culture. Most of those who write in this fashion are often those who associate with Balasooriya and the gang, who wine and dine with them, and are their close friends. They never took a critical view of this journalistic culture adopted by their friends. They chose to consider them courageous, brave and aggressive journalists.

Balasooriya and his Media Advocate gang blew up minor and insignificant incidents portraying them as very serious and dangerous events and painted a black picture about the country. Given below are some events they blew up out of all proportion.

Poddala Jayantha

I have written before about the misleading report concerning the Police raid on Poddala Jayantha’s house. Sanath Balasuriya was also a party to this deception. This Police raid took place in the night. Poddala really got frightened and shouted for help. When the neighbours gathered around the house, the police party left. The Police Inspector in charge of this search told Poddala that it was a mistake and told him the reasons that had led to the search. Poddala accepted the Inspector’s explanation. He even told his friends that it had really been a mistake. He said so even to some of his friends in the Ravaya.

But Balasooriya and those in the Free Media Movement wanted to make it sensational news both locally and internationally. Accordingly, they issued a statement that an attempt made by the Police to abduct Poddala Jayantha, the Secretary of the Professional Journalists’ Association and a prominent activist of the Free Media Movement has been prevented by the timely intervention of the people of the area. Poddala also opted to subscribe to this blatant lie. What they wanted was to show the world that the suppression of media freedom in Sri Lanka was gathering momentum. They did not want to let this opportunity pass, which would help justify their claim. The growth of the quantum of foreign aid they received was dependant on the degree of suppression of media freedom.

(To be continued)