Published On:Saturday, July 7, 2012
Posted by Sri Lanka Guardian
l by Shanie
"We must look the world in the face with calm and clear eyes even though the eyes of the world are blood shot today." - Mahatma Gandhi
(07 July, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Gandhi spoke these words when the Indian national leaders were imprisoned in 1942 by the then colonial rulers during the time when the British Government and many countries of the world were at war. The Indian leaders were being continuously imprisoned during the course of their struggle for independence. Jawarhalal Nehru, who was the to be the first Prime Minister of independent India, was imprisoned about a dozen times; his 1942 jail term was to last over thirty months. Yet, despite this harassment, the Indian leaders retained acalm and clear head, as Gandhi advised, despite the blood-shot eyes in their colonial masters. It is that spirit which remained embedded in India’s post-colonial rulers that enabled India to break free, attain independence and yet retain a passion for democracy sans revenge or hatred towards their erstwhile oppressors. It was the same spirit that guided Nelson Mandela towards democracy and tolerance in post-apartheid South Africa.
Sealing of Lanka Mirror website
Sadly, this spirit appears to be lacking in Sri Lanka. On the contrary, it is bloodshot eyes that we seem to be seeing at every turn. What else are we to make of the constant harassment of those who dare to dissent, of those to dare to oppose the actions of the government and its leaders. The latest instance of this fascist attitude is the raid and sealing of the offices of the Lanka Mirror website and its associate and the arrest of the journalists and other staff attached to the two web sites. The raid was carried out by the CID but it was the hand of the Defence Ministry behind it is obvious from the explanation for the raid was immediately posted on the Defence Ministry website. According to the Defence Ministry, the offices of the Lanka Mirror were sealed because they carried false and unethical news about popular personalities "The CID officials raided the office after a court order and have found that these two websites were directly engaged in propagating false and distorted news. Further investigations are continuing."
This explanation is somewhat baffling. We are told that the CID raided the offices and found that they were engaged in propagating false and distorted information. If they found this out only after the raid, then on what basis was the court order obtained? We know that the websites in question are managed by Mangala Samaraweera and generally support his political line. The same can be said of all media, print and electronic. They tend to support the political line of those who own or manage it. But certainly publishing of false news, knowing that it is false, is not in keeping with the any standard of journalism. In this instance, however, there is no indication that either of these websites deliberately carried any false news. But comment is free and no one, whatever position he may occupy, is exempt from critical comment about his actions. If a person feels his reputation has been unfairly harmed, there are the laws of defamation to protect his interests.
The Ministry of Defence website itself is often guilty of providing false information or defaming individuals. It carries an article on 28th June, for instance, referring to an un-named Education Ministry Secretary (under Ranil Wickremesinghe) as a well known underworld murderer; again there is a reference to an un-named Police Chief as a notorious drug baron. These are plain slanderous and deliberate misinformation but who is to tell the physician to heal himself? Those in the know will be able to identify the Police Chief whom the website is referring to; they will also know that this IGP had an impeccable record in the Police service at the time of his well deserved appointment; they will also know who is responsible for this malicious slander. Despite the untenable reference in the Defence Ministry website, it must be noted that President Rajapaksa has taken it upon himself to appoint this former IGP as a member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.
There must be freedom of expression in any country which wants to calls itself a democracy. That freedom no doubt is governed by certain constraints like defaming the reputation of individuals as in the case of the Defence Ministry website referred to earlier. Again, it was Mahatma Gandhi who once said: "I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any." Similarly, a country must not remain walled in and its borders shut to the rest of the world. Countries that tried to do so, failed and have now reverted to openness. There has to be freedom of thought and expression if any country is to flourish. Dissenting journalists and public interest whistle blowers need to be encouraged and protected. Authoritarian and arrogant governments and politicians need to kept on their toes.
The editorial writer made a much more important point: ‘All it takes to pave the way for a dictatorship is for the public and the media to take the suppression of those sacred rights lying down. Therefore, one cannot but condemn the government’s draconian action against Opposition propagandists.’ One senses a certain apathy both among the working journalists as well as the general public when political figures use not only state agencies like the CID but also sundry goons to intimidate and/or use physical violence, including murder, against opponents.
Paving the way for a dictatorship
No doubt, the present Government is not the first one to harass and threaten journalists and media institutions. This has gone on for many years, particularly since the seventies. In the early years after independence, both UNP and SLFP governments ensured that there was freedom for the Press and journalists to criticise and lampoon politicians. Such criticism was taken in good humour, though it must also be stated that there was little malice in the way politicians were lampooned. There was also the celebrated defamation case against Theja Gunawardena, editor of the left-oriented Trine weekly. It was a time when the Judiciary cherished their independence. After a trial in the Supreme Court, the learned Judges held against the Attorney General and acquitted Gunawardena.
The Island editorially commented this week on the government’s action against Lanka Mirror and its associated web sites: "Governments love malleable, servile media outfits ready to give in to Big Brother’s diktats with no questions asked and look for excuses to crack down on others. Any attempt to deprive the media and the public of their freedom of expression, right to information and right to dissent must be condemned unreservedly and resisted with might and main for the wellbeing of democracy."
But the editorial writer made a much more important point: ‘All it takes to pave the way for a dictatorship is for the public and the media to take the suppression of those sacred rights lying down. Therefore, one cannot but condemn the government’s draconian action against Opposition propagandists.’ One senses a certain apathy both among the working journalists as well as the general public when political figures use not only state agencies like the CID but also sundry goons to intimidate and/or use physical violence, including murder, against opponents.
Press and Democracy in Brazil
Roberto Civita, a leading civil society figure in Brazil was Chairman and Editor-in-chief of a leading newspaper group, Abril. In 2006, he delivered the keynote address at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School’s Alumni Forum. on the subject ‘The Role of the Press in an emerging democracy’. He said that over the previous four decades, two which were under military rule, the Brazilian Press had played key role in first clamouring for and then making an enormous contribution to the strengthening of the democratic institutions in Brazil. As soon as censorship was lifted, the Brazilian media, especially the print media, had inspired, mirrored, echoed and amplified the popular movements that led to the election in 1985 of the first civilian President in over twenty years. Five years later, it led to the election of Fernando Collor de Mello as President by popular vote. But the Press which supported his election turned against him when mounting allegations of massive corruption were made. He was to be impeached by Parliament when he resigned from office at the end of 1992. The Press and the public were in the forefront of the move to impeach the President on charges of corruption. But it was the Press and the public pressure it created that led to the impeachment of this charismatic President. Since then, supported by the Press and the public, there has been some semblance of political and economic stability despite many legislators having also to face charges of corruption.
Media as the Conscience of the Nation
The primary role of the media is to keep the readers and the country informed. In that sense, it serves as the conscience of the nation. It also serves as a watchdog exposing wrong-doing, corruption and bad governance. As in the above case in Brazil and the Washington Post journalists’ expose of wrong-doing by President Nixon, the Press created sufficient pressure for Presidents to heed public opinion and resign from office. It is possible only where there is a free Press that is not strangled by the Executive. The sealing of the Lanka Mirror websites is therefore something that we must vigorously oppose. We cannot have double standards. The Defence Ministry website engages in character assassination and continues to operate vilifying the opposition; while other web sites are silenced for no ostensible reason other than they take a stand opposing actions of the government as any democratic opposition is entitled to.
Networking for Rights in Sri Lanka (NfR), a multi-ethnic group of left-oriented Sri Lankan expatriates, have just released a statement pointing out that five Tamil language web sites have been blocked. Earlier access was similarly denied to several web news sites, including Sri Lanka Guardian, lanka-e-news and lankanewsweb. As the NfR rightly point out there cannot be any democratization of post-war Sri Lanka when freedom of expression is denied in this fashion. There is no issue of ethical reporting involved as the Ministry of Defence tries to makes out. They must first put their own house in order. How often have we seen false stories and tendentious reporting from the state media as well.
Democracy can flourish in Sri Lanka only when religious and civil society leaders, the independent media and the people with a conscience take a firm stand to defend the people’s right to access information and opinion from a variety of sources. The current laws are adequate to protect individual rights where there is unfair injury to reputations.