Can Sri Lankan media regain its freedom?
Sri Lanka's uneasy peace after ending a 25-year-old civil insurgency and brutally crushing the separatist group LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) earlier this year, is being put to a new test by its fettered media. As we had discussed earlier, the Sri Lankan government had completely shut out the media and aid agencies from covering the war-ravaged north and east.
Several journalists have been killed over the past couple years, the most chilling one being that of Lasantha Wickrematunge, who, anticipating his own death for criticizing the government, is reported to have written his "final ed" before he was shot dead. Many journalists are reported to be fleeing the country.
But now that the war is over, isn't it time for some free speech and free flow of information?
It's not that simple. As many feared, Sri Lanka's success against the LTTE may make its government even more authoritarian. The latest action against a journalist that drew international attention was the sentencing by a high court of Tamil journalist J. S. Tissainayagam to a 20-year rigorous imprisonment under the country's strict anti-terror laws. He has been accused of writing divisive stories and accepting funds and other services from the Tamil Tigers. He was arrested in 2008 and is likely to appeal the verdict.
His sentence is drawing widespread criticism. As a New York Times article reports:
[R]ights advocates say that Mr. Tissainayagam’s sentence reflects the plight of Sri Lanka’s embattled press corps. At least seven journalists have been killed since 2007, including some singled out by the Tamil Tigers. Many more have fled the country.
“It is very serious blow,” said Sanjana Hattotuwa, editor of Groundviews, a citizen journalism Web site. “It sends a chilling message that the independent expression of opinion is no longer tolerated in Sri Lanka.”
"The South-Asian community as well as large sections of the international community has allowed themselves to be deluded by what one would call a willing suspension of disbelief as to how an allegedly democratically re-elected government has gone a path of a very authoritarian way to deal with all kinds of descent."
It may seem like a clear-cut case of repression, but Sri Lanka is in a curiously complicated situation. It has just ended a decades-old bloody civil strife. A majority of its citizens are probably relieved at the end of hostilities. It should come as no surprise that the government that finally gave them that peace -- no matter at what cost -- should be topping all popularity charts.
But what has the media got to do with popularity? Were they expected to take sides? Yes, pretty much.
The war zone is all but off-limits to the media, one of the many security measures imposed by a government with little tolerance for dissent. "I ask this of all political parties, all media and all people's organizations," Rajapaksa said in a speech in 2006. "You decide whether you should be with a handful of terrorists or with the common man ... You must clearly choose between these two sides."
I asked a friend of mine who has been working as a journalist in Sri Lanka for a long time if the government was prosecuting Tamil journalists more. The friend (who is not Tamil) said no, but noted that the war had pushed journalists to pick sides. He/she said reporting in general was difficult and a public opinion had built up that either you support the war effort or you are an enemy, so independent reporting was seen as not supporting the war effort.
(My friend also clarified that although a couple of journalists did have to leave the country because their work was seen as critical of the military, it is a mixed bag: some who left were active in media rights groups and by extension sought a peaceful solution to the conflict. A few others were simply using the current environment to get a foreign visa even though they didn't face direct threats.
However, what was most noteworthy was my friend's observation to a question that the biggest problem facing the country was the lack of independent, trustworthy media outlets that were free of any agenda.
In a scathing article in The Independent (via Columbia Journalism Review, via NYT), a Sri Lankan "correspondent" -- whose name has been withheld by the publication for fear of repercussion -- tells the story of a president who was once an intrepid human rights activist himself, but is now building a legacy of strangling the free press:
If one were to set aside the remarkable victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for just a moment, the other most significant legacy of Rajapaksa’s presidency is the veritable death of the free Sri Lankan media. The independent press has been muzzled, strangled, beaten and killed in the last four years and the intimidation is by far the worst the country has ever seen.
Where attempts to beat and kill media personnel into submission have failed, the administration has simply purchased publishing houses for millions of rupees or convinced newspaper proprietors to join the ruling party, effectively suppressing any dissenting views being expressed in those publications. [...]
With the mainstream media muffled, even today, four months after the war was officially declared over, the average Sri Lankan citizen possesses access only to the government version of events in the country. And because the majority of news filtering through to the masses is overwhelmingly positive, Sri Lankans are growing less and less inclined to believe dissenting opinion which hints that all is not well in paradise.
This will likely be Sri Lanka's new challenge: coming out of the war years and rebuilding a free press. It is not going to be easy. It is understandable that the common Sri Lankan is still savoring his/her long-awaited "victory". Criticism of its government at this point can be unsavory. And if the above reports are true, many in the media have picked their side in the conflict.
But a press that is little more than a political mouthpiece can kill democracy quickly. The press, along with its people if not sooner, will have to emerge from its war-defined existence. A free and neutral press is beyond any ethnic squabbles. After all, a government's job does not end with a battle. And then, it will need the watchdogs.
Sri Lankans are saying..:
The Puppeteer wants Sri Lankans to be aware that the president is not infallible
Sri Lanka Today discusses the anti-terror law and the media
South Asia Citizens Web's interview with spokesperson of Sri Lanka Democracy Forum
Sanjiva Weerawarana's blog
A Voice in Colombo
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