Note prepared for Lasantha Wickremetunge Memorial lecture on 21st September 2013 in Toronto, Canada. For full video of full presentation and the ensuing discussion, click here.
Over four years after the end of the war, what is it about Sri Lanka that still resists greater freedom of expression?
At a recent meeting with members of the team that visited the country on a fact finding mission from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a sadly familiar litany of issues regarding the suppression of media freedom, culture of impunity, growth of hate speech, lack of any meaningful investigations into the abductions and murders of journalists and the heightened self-censorship were tabled in great detail. The team was reminded that Sri Lanka ranks near bottom of every single global press freedom index since 2009. These facts are well known, and yet the political will to enact remedial measures remains absent. Tellingly, what is an outrageous record of violence against critical journalism is, within Sri Lanka, not a subject of sustained debate or outrage, save for when there’s yet another contract killing to silence an inconvenient voice or media institution.
And therein lies the rub.
Threats, often violent, in response to any kind of journalism or voice that interrogates Sri Lanka’s growing democratic deficit and militarisation continue to grow, and yet agitation for greater freedom of expression including the safety and security of journalists remain both episodic and peripheral within the mainstream media itself. What is often portrayed simplistically and condemned as a media hostage to and victimised by a brutish Government masks a more complex reality.
After the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper in early 2009, censorship and control of media is more sophisticated than just the use and threat of violence. Proxies of the government have bought up once independent newspapers, with obvious impact on their gaze and output. Others, often businessmen who stand to win large tenders and contracts, have setup media institutions that compete with each other, as well as State owned media, in a race to produce and publish propaganda. State media itself is guilty of hate speech, especially targeted at human rights activists. All broadcast and print media, without exception, rely on advertising to maintain operations. The Government itself is one the largest advertisers. The threat of losing advertising revenue is alone enough to effectively silence, and without any official censorship in place. Even less is spoken about the unprofessionalism of mainstream media. For example, Editors of many leading newspapers admit to meeting the President regularly at breakfast meetings to discuss the news agenda. Why they repeatedly do so, and what is discussed, remain secret. Unsurprisingly, since the end of war, critical dissent and the most revealing exposes have shifted to web media, including over web based social media like Facebook and Twitter. This has not gone unnoticed. Without any legal basis, websites continue to be arbitrarily blocked for publishing content on corruption, human rights abuses and militarisation few, if any mainstream media in Sri Lanka will first or even subsequently publish or broadcast. Earlier this year, the all-powerful Secretary of Defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, went as far as to openly call social media a national security threat. Overall, Tamil language media continues to report on issues in the North and East of the country that don’t, even in passing, get mention in Sinhala language media and only occasionally, and then too in diluted form, find expression in English language media.
The net result is that, ironically, the most ardent consumers of mainstream media are also the most ignorant of issues around democratic governance and the rule of law that rapidly and comprehensively undermine Sri Lanka’s prospects of a just and sustainable peace. Web based media operating domestically and outside of Sri Lanka meticulously record and publish the inconvenient, but lack the reach and impact of mainstream media. Thus the central challenge remains one of promoting critical commentary in a context that trucks no dissent.
Just a few weeks ago, a senior investigative journalist found herself and her children at gunpoint. Her predicament, in a country we are told is now enjoying peace and from which she was lucky to get out alive, is emblematic of the larger media context. Truly independent media and the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka remain under the shadow of a gun.
We ignore this only to risk another, more brutal war.