Wanted: Strategies To Awaken The People

by Gamini Weerakoon

(July 17, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Karu Jayasuriya’s attempt to get a Freedom of Information Act passed by parliament had a beneficial fallout even though there was not the remotest possibility of it being accepted by the steam roller majority of the ruling party. The ruling party’s refusal exposed the nakedness of the government that stands on high moral grounds and proclaims its honesty, transparency and clean hands.

Who needs freedom of information?

Karu Jayasuriya would have been optimistic in expecting a Freedom of Information Bill to be passed. For example would files pertaining to the murders of Lasantha Wickrematunga and Siva Ram and the disappearance of Pradeep Ekneligoda and other abductions and killings of journalists be released on request? Would there have been responses even queries made by the media or public? What would have been the responses to the many fraudulent arms deals which the media alleged over the years? The Tilakawardene report where many arms deals were investigated was not for public eyes, the President had said.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa who addressed editors and media barons recently queried: Why do you want a Freedom of Information Act? If you want a file, ask me, he said jocularly, deftly avoiding the issue. The editors and media barons guffawed at this presidential humour. In recent years when a president or any other close to the throne indulges in such humour, the supine media guffaws—even editors of once fiercely independent privately owned newspapers.

Although most established democracies have enacted Freedom of Information Acts, maintaining transparency in governance as envisaged by such legislation is a formidable challenge. But if governments cannot take the public into confidence and attempt to blindfold them on vital issues, then they cannot lay claims to democratic governance. Even India with its billion strong populace has fearlessly enacted a Freedom of Information Act. Why can’t Sri Lanka, with its leaders being great admirers of India, with only 20 million people, do likewise?
Chandrika Kumaratunga was one who beat the war drums on the right to information as she marched to power with her Free Media warriors. Once ensconced in power, Chandrika who has a devastating turn of phrase declared: Transparency in governance does not amount to dancing naked on the streets. Her naïve supporters who expected her to listen to their harangues dropped out of the entourage one by one.

The Sangakkara Oration

While the right of citizens to be informed on government activities is essential it is equally important that governments listen to what the people say. It has to be admitted that in this island, once a government is in power it does not give two hoots about what the people think or about informing them of what the rulers are going to do. But information is a two way process.

A rare instance of the entire country sitting up, even the high and mighty, listening and taking note, was Kumar Sangakkara’s oration at Lords recently on the Spirit of cricket. It is not only important to cricket but as a classic in media communications.

Sangakkara did not say anything different to what sports writers had been saying in recent times about the pathetic state of Sri Lanka Cricket. But it electrified the people and their rulers and his words are still reverberating among the Sri Lankan public.

The observation of a commentator about it being made by the right person, at the right place at the right time is correct.

Was the right person in that he had earlier chosen martyrdom—resigning from captaincy for reasons he gave which were not believed and with rumours abound that political interference was the cause. Martyrs, the world over, have the sympathy of the people. No better stage could have been provided than the home of cricket, Lords, and at the Colin Cowdrey memorial lecture at that. And the timing could not have been better Sri Lanka Cricket having fallen to the lowest depths. And the delivery was elegant.

People like to hear what they believe in

Cricket has transcended class and racial barriers. Sangakkara had credibility and was a cricketing hero to all. He had been honoured to make the prestigious Colin Cowdrey lecture at the headquarters of world cricket. This was at a time when Sri Lanka Cricket, that had reached the pinnacle in 1996 as World Champions, was in the doldrums. It was an honest, splendid and elegant oration. Naturally it went not only to the hearts of the cricketing public both here and abroad but also to a very much wider audience.

Sangakkara may have not intended to stray from the cricket field into the mine field of politics but his speech may have been an unwitting reference to the state of the nation. The country’s show piece, cricket had been mired, stabbed in the back and bled dry by unscrupulous sycophants and scoundrels. Who is responsible for all this? No names were necessary.The history of Sri Lankan cricket is the history of many institutions that had once earned good reputations by generations of dedicated people of this country, but had since gone down the ‘pallang’, as Sri Lankans say. Some examples are: the public service, elections department, police, judiciary, universities and other sports such as rugby all fall into this category. Kumar Sangakkara’s speech at Lords made almost the entire country react, including the government. It may have hurt at least some of the ruling potentates. Why the speech went down so well is that people like to hear what they believe in.

The immediate stupid reaction of the Minister of Sports was to hold an inquiry into the speech. For those who have the interests of the game at heart an inquiry into the speech is not called for but an inquiry into the state of cricket as described by the former cricket captain is the requirement.

Subject for media pundits

The former captain’s speech should be a subject of study for media communicators. A Freedom of Information Act would not be of much help when the overwhelming proportion of the media – press , radio, TV – are government owned, government controlled and even a greater part of the privately owned media are in the pockets of the ruling party. They cannot probe into government misdemeanors nor will they want to commit hara-kiri. Other means of carrying the message to the somnolent public would have to be considered.
Towards the tail end of President Premadasa’s regime with the media virtually in shackles an alternative media (Vikalpa Madhya), many small tabloid newspapers proliferated.

They were widely accepted by the public and were the chariots on which Chandrika Kumaratunga rode to power. President Premadasa could not control this hydra headed media because when one paper was stifled one or two more emerged. This modus operandi may not be feasible in present times but alternative strategies to awaken and inform the people should be considered.

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