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The watchdog role of media and vigilance of civil society

by Shanie

"What we can't face look for us anyway. If there is any chance people have to be willing to think; to not be afraid of thinking. If we learn to think clearly and coherently, we will create the solution."


"I am just a human being trying to make it in a world that is very rapidly losing its understanding of being human."  - John Trudell (US lyricist and poet)


(March 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) When Basil Rajapaksa announced in Parliament last week that the Government had taken over the land on which the Hilton Hotel was sited, not many were surprised. The Urban Development Authority had in 1984 leased out the land to a developer with a stipulation that the lease rent should be paid annually. Apparently, the lease rent had not been paid for the last twenty-five years and the holding company itself had run up huge debts. A few years ago, Nihal Amarasekera, that irrepressible initiator of public interest litigation, had unsuccessfully moved for the winding up of the company. But despite the lack of surprise, there was also concern about a lack of transparency by the UDA, now curiously under the Ministry of Defence. This take-over followed the leasing out of prime property on Galle Face to the Hong Kong based Shangri La Hotels, and the proposed eviction of the urban poor from Slave Island and Kollupitiya areas to make way for this kind of development.

There is widespread rumour floating around business circles in Colombo that the government has decided or even already signed an agreement with an Indian hotelier to lease-out the Hilton Hotel. One does not know what element of truth there is in these stories but they spread because there has been no statement from the UDA about their plans for Hilton. The take-over should have been accompanied by a plan for the future of one of Colombo's land-mark hotels. But there has been no announcement by the UDA of any such plans. Indeed, there has been no announcement by the Defence Ministry administered UDA about their plans for Colombo. There is a popular feeling that they wish to develop Colombo on the Singapore model and the eviction of the urban poor who have been long-time residents of the city is in keeping with that plan. The human element gets lost in such plans; this is what John Trudell referred to as a world that was very rapidly losing its understanding of being human.

The lone dissident of Singapore

What is even more appalling is that both civil society and the media have been intimidated into silence. This perhaps also follows the Singapore model where the opposition have to undergo much harassment. Those who have followed politics in Singapore will know the harassment that the lone opposition figure Ben Jeyaratnam had to go through. Court cases were brought against him at regular intervals and unfortunately, in the light of the authoritarian mood that prevailed in Singapore, Jeyaratnam did not receive the justice that he was entitled to. Neither did the media take up issues of justice for him and his Workers' Party.

Ben Jeyartnam's case has interesting parallels. He was first elected to Parliament at a by-election and at the subsequent General Election was re-elected with an even bigger majority. When he was elected for the first time, he was the sole opposition member of Parliament. By the time he was re-elected, there were two. But the Government was in no mood to tolerate even such a tiny opposition. Jeyaratnam was indicted on several counts, primarily of having submitted falsified party accounts. Justice Khoo heard his case and acquitted him of all the charges except one. On appeal, his case was now transferred by the Chief Justice to a District Court which found him guilty of all the charges and ensured that he was deprived of his seat in Parliament and disbarred from practising his profession as a lawyer. Justice Khoo who originally found the charges not proven was demoted from being head of the subordinate court to the Attorney General's Chambers. Appeals to the Privy Council were not possible from judgements of District Courts; and Jeyaratnam had to be content with an appeal to the Privy Council against his disbarment from Parliament and his profession.

The Privy Council judgement was unequivocal: "Their Lordships have to record their deep disquiet that by a series of misjudgements, the appellant and his co-accused Wong, have suffered a grievous injustice. They have been fined, imprisoned and publicly disgraced for offences of which they are not guilty. The appellant, in addition, has been deprived of his seat in Parliament and disqualified for a year from practising his profession. Their Lordships order restores him to the roll of advocates and solicitors of the Supreme Court of Singapore, but, because of the course taken by the criminal proceedings, their Lordships have no power to right the other wrongs which the appellant and Wong have suffered. Their only prospect of redress, their Lordships understand, will be by way of petition for pardon to the President of the Republic of Singapore." As expected, the appeal to the President failed. Further, such appeals to the Privy Council were abolished by the government the following year.

Jeyaratnam was returned as a Member of Parliament after his period of disqualification was over. But cases after cases continued to be filed against him. In the bar of public opinion, he was an honourable man. At the age of 82, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaratnam suffered a heart attack and died, his conscience and reputation vindicated. But sadly, neither the media nor the civil society dared to speak out against the injustices he had to endure during his lifetime.

It is not only in Singapore but in many other counties claiming to be democracies, the civil society and media dare not speak out against injustices and corruption in government. Even in Sri Lanka, the private media is muted in their criticism of any wrong-doing. Even when they do criticise, the leader-writers seem to think that they have to balance their criticism by speaking of past wrong-doings of the opposition as well. The role of the media is to keep the public informed. They fail in their duty when they remain silent on issues that affect the integrity of the nation and its leaders, and on issues that have a direct bearing on the rights of the people, particularly of the poor and the marginalised.

Legitimising a rigged referendum

A little over thirty years ago, a military ruler was in power in Ghana following a military coup. He wanted to legitimise his rule by holding a national referendum. Andrew Walker,a journalist with the BBC, was sent to cover this referendum. He soon discovered that that the whole exercise was a fraud with the opposition denied access to the media and all sorts of dirty tricks being employed. The Judge supervising the referendum was threatened with death if he did not produce the results that the government wanted. As the results began to be counted, a group of soldiers walked into the Judges' office demanding to be let in. Not surprisingly, he took fright and fled, first to the home of a priest nearby and later to a safe house in the country.

The priest and a representative of the Judge saw Walker at a secret location and related the story. The local media did not report the story and when Walker put the story over on telex to London, his copy was confiscated. Telephones were not available but Walker managed to send the story to London on an audio-cassette through a helpful airline employee. The BBC broadcast the story the next day. The local media had still not reported the story so the BBC story created a sensation. The local Radio Ghana reported that the Special Branch were looking for a BBC reporter who had sent out false reports.

Walker had to secretly flee the country leaving through the land border with Togo. An interesting incident at the land order was when the Ghanian policeman handed back Walker's passport by saying, 'You've been covering our referendum, haven't you, Mr Walker. You'll always be welcome.' But two British businessmen, one an MP, wrote separately to the BBC complaining about its coverage of the referendum and the injustice done to 'that honest man' – the military ruler General Acheampong. In contrast were several letters from ordinary Ghanians 'grateful that some of the facts about Ghana's plight had been made public.' As a footnote, it may be mentioned the some months later, General Acheampong was forced to resign by his fellow-officers and a year later, executed by firing squad for 'crimes against the people.'

We close with the advice given to newspapermen in the well known words of C P Scott, who edited the Guardian for over fifty years: A newspaper's primary office is the gathering of news. But, 'at the peril of its soul it must see that the (news) is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. "Propaganda", so called, by this means is hateful. The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard. Comment also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair.'

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