President’s Monkey Tricks Before Polls: Hamstrung Media

| by Pearl Thevanayagam

(November 18, 2014, Bradford UK, Sri Lanka Guardian) Some 37 journalists were murdered by successive regimes in Sri Lanka since Richard De Soysa was dragged out from his home by President Premadasa’s henchmen in 1990 and to date not a single killing has been probed and this is saying something about democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, the no-holds barred editor of Sunday Leader, was murdered in broad daylight in high security zone on his way to work on January 09, 2009. The President’s brother who is now defence secretary Gotabhaya was braying for Lasantha’s blood for exposing his involvement in arms procurement and threatened him before he was summarily killed and he has blood on his hand.

Prageeth Ekneliyagoda is still missing and his wife seeks justice and imploring powers both national and international to probe his disappearance so she and her family could have a semblance of a normal life. It is incumbent on the government to provide financial relief to his family, Lasantha and several Tamil journalists’ dependents among others who sacrificed their lives for exposing war crimes, corruption, bad governance and financial improprieties since all hands point at the government and to a lesser extent Tamil and Sinhala rebels for their murders and disappearances. Lasantha’s family are living in limbo having received no justice from the government which killed him.

Politicians are jittery about the media. When a politician says mea culpa and says he did wrong is when his voters could seek redress and move on.

US tried to suppress Julian Assange of Wikileaks in his relentless pursuit to expose secret memos of world leaders, intelligence and diplomats. His incarceration at Ecuador Embassy in London following charges of rape allegations against him by vested interests shows why the West and US want to silence him. Opinions of Assange at this time were divided. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard described his activities as "illegal, only to be told that he had broken no Australian law. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and others called him a "terrorist." Some called for his assassination or execution.

Support came from people including the Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and activists and celebrities including Tariq Ali, John Perry Barlow, ,Mary Kostakidis, John Pilger, Vaughan Smith,….. the grand nephew of Graham Greene who covered Vietnam and wrote many novels from his war time reporting and runs Frontline Club in Paddington for war correspondents and Oliver Stone.

Campaigns to fight for their justice fizzle out in double-quick time and media NGOs give up when their funds run dry. The demonstrations outside Fort Railway Station and Lipton Circus are token gestures with photo shoots and nothing more.

Why it needs drumming into the collective conscience of journalists and human rights activists is that the fight for justice loses momentum when focus on the forthcoming Presidential elections turns towards Mahinda seeking a third term. Mission statements from NGOs are deleted from emails to make way for worthy news. Were it not for the moronic voters and their allegiance to a Sinhala Buddhist hegemony harping on a mythical 2,500 year old civilisation which ignores their basic needs, the Rajapaksas would have been booted out post-haste. He will be ensconced for a third term no doubt and the masses have only themselves to blame for their plight.

In the Maldives, every President was shot point-blank during the 21 gun-salute until Abdul Gayoom. Independent media and political dissent was unheard of ergo t…..

From the ‘60s, only the President had a car in Male which is one square mile in area and it was the children of his relatives who attended the two international schools, Ameeniya and Majeediya, headed by the British and staffed with Sri Lankan and Indian graduates. My father who was teaching there for nearly 20 years used to narrate how the education minister who came to see him made a loud clearing of his throat to make his presence known instead of ringing the door-bell. He wanted his portrait painted.

Of the 1,192 islands there were only 300 inhabited most of whom were fishermen. Most families did not have toilets and instead had holes in the compound which they covered with sand following defecation. Only foreigners had flushing toilets indoors. Flies swarm around these hovels since sanitation was from the agenda of the government and it honestly believed it is not its duty to give them basic human needs.

But times changed and Maldivians who had had enough of the disparity in wealth and impoverished through suppression by the ruling dynasty revolted and overthrew President Gayoom and a transient government under Mohamed Nasheed who promised rapid reforms and restoration of democracy. The seeds of discontent was being sown.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom began his 30-year role as President in 1978, winning six consecutive elections without opposition. His election was seen as ushering in a period of political stability and economic development in view of Gayoom's priority to develop the poorer islands. Tourism flourished and increased foreign contact spurred development. However, Gayoom's rule was controversial, with some critics saying Gayoom was an autocrat who quelled dissent by limiting freedoms and political favouritism.

Media was one-sided and the only radio was the HMV of Maldives echoed by a Sri Lankan announcer.

A series of coup attempts (in 1980, 1983, and 1988) by Nasir supporters and business interests tried to topple the government without success. While the first two attempts met with little success, the 1988 coup attempt involved a roughly 80-person mercenary force of the PLOTE Tamil militant group who seized the airport and caused Gayoom to flee from house to house until the intervention of 1600 Indian troops airlifted into Malé restored order.

The November 1988 coup was headed by Muhammadu Ibrahim Lutfee, a small-businessman. On the night of 3 November 1988, the Indian Air Force airlifted a parachute battalion group from Agra and flew them over 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) to the Maldives. The Indian paratroopers landed at Hulule and secured the airfield and restored the government rule at Malé within hours. The brief, bloodless operation, labelled Operation Cactus, also involved the Indian Navy.

On 23 February 2012, the Commonwealth suspended the Maldives from its democracy and human rights watchdog while the ousting was being investigated, and backed Nasheed's call for elections before the end of 2012. Though in March 2012 the new regime promised new elections; in April the state minister of foreign affairs announced that elections would not be held in the near future.

On 8 October, President Mohamed Nasheed was arrested after failing to appear in court to face charges that he ordered the illegal arrest of a judge while in office. However, his supporters claim that this detention was politically motivated in order to prevent him from campaigning for the 2013 presidential elections.

This is a lesson Mahinda should take heed of in that there is a limit to how much the masses could be hoodwinked. The sad truth is the masses still hope the president would deliver on promises he made which knows for sure will not keep. His decade old tenure as executive president will no doubt extend to another term if not more should Sri Lankans cling on to the myth of Rajapaksas as liberators of the island from terrorism.

No more can our politicians hoodwink modern media and bribe them with perks. For every sycophant journalist there is an equal and challenging journalist who wants to expose it all at a price; at the least incarceration and at the most torture and murder.

As we await the third term of Mahinda and much bandied about a common candidate to oust him it would bode well to take stock of the President’s overture in garnering grass-roots support which would secure him a landslide victory whether he well deserves it or not.

He has sycophant media bending backwards to thwart any opposition until Sri Lankans wake up from their slumber and realise they deserve better governance. But will we ever learn?

(The writer has been a journalist for 25 years and worked in national newspapers as sub-editor, news reporter and news editor. She was Colombo Correspondent for Times of India and has contributed to Wall Street Journal where she was on work experience from The Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, California. Currently residing in UK she is also co-founder of EJN (Exiled Journalists Network) UK in 2005 the membership of which is 200 from 40 countries. She can be reached at