A fresh warning to media critical of the government by the Prime Minister deserves our attention and comment. The latest warning isn’t the first issued against the mainstream media by the PM. A few months ago, speaking at a function held to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum, the PM was reported to have said that “the greatest threat to media freedom is… from within the media. Not from anyone else.” There is, sadly, significant merit to this argument. Under the Rajapaksa regime, a lot of attention was centred around threats to media and journalists. Less attention was paid around standards and ethics. With the dramatic change in political context, media can now more openly and frequently criticise government including over matters that were entirely out of bounds from 2005 to early 2015. Ironically then, in addition to a wider scope and on occasion, depth of content, only possible without the pall of violence against the media, the general lack of any discernible ethics and professional standards in reporting is now starkly evident. Sexism, gossip, homophobia, articles replete with just one source or anonymous sources, hearsay and the downright bizarre regularly feature in mainstream media. It is sickening to read, awful to watch and annoying to listen to. And this is, tragically, the general state of media in Sri Lanka, with a few exceptions by way of columnists, editors and journalists.
On the other hand, it is clear the PM’s statements against the media are problematic. They may stem from a genuine frustration with unprofessional reporting. However, in choosing to highlight the issue in the way he did, the PM focussed attention on himself and his expression, instead of real problems. A cardinal mistake, especially for a politician. The PM expressly named two newspapers. It is unclear why these two were singled out. A column published in one by a well-known pro-Rajapaksa or perhaps more importantly, anti-Ranil writer may have irked the PM. The cause for the other newspaper to be mentioned isn’t entirely clear, and perhaps never will be. Columnists present opinion not as fact, but as subjective perspectives for wider consideration, in the hope that both the support in favour of our arguments as well as principled opposition to them fuels the kind of informed debate vital to a healthy democracy. To wit, the same newspaper criticised by the PM also publishes other columnists critical of government, but are closer to the senior political leadership of the UNP. Arguably though, this is kosher. To criticise a newspaper for carrying a column critical of government is no better than tactics employed by the Rajapaksas, back in the day, to instil fear and self-censorship amongst independent media and stifle critical dissent. Opposing this is both urgent and necessary. The submission that these statements against media are deeply harmful, run completely counter to and put into question the spirit of governance promised under yahapalanaya must also be taken seriously, including by the international community which now so resolutely highlights our democratic cred. However, the condemnation of the PM’s statements by those who were silent during or benefitted from the Rajapaksa regime is clearly hypocritical at best. The former Cabinet Minister of External Affairs, the former Director of International Media and Head of Digital Media at Sri Lanka President’s Office, and some journalists have come out strongly against the PM’s statement. At a time when Sri Lanka was scraping the very bottom of every single global media freedom index year after year, when dissent was violently clamped down on and meaningful debate all but stifled, these same individuals had no problem supporting the Rajapaksa regime and were silent about the threats, abductions, torture and outright murder of journalists and media workers. And when the former President’s son criticises media freedom today on Twitter, he conveniently forgets what his father and family did to eviscerate the freedom of expression for ten years across electronic, print and web media. So while the PM’s statement cannot be condoned, some – including from the media itself – who vociferously condemn it should be reminded that the space for criticism wasn’t one afforded by the Rajapaksas to their political opponents.
The issue here is much larger than the PM’s statement. As cartoonist Awantha Artigala depicted last week by way of naming two crabs politics and media, both walk a crooked line in Sri Lanka. Mindful of this, how should media respond to the PM’s warning? By continuing to critique the government? Or fearful of reprimand and covert reprisal, cower and cover-up? This goes to the heart of the relationship between a media hostage to political patronage and markets, and a political culture that sees, even today, State media as platforms for propaganda, and all media enjoying a space for critical commentary defined, with deliberate imprecision, by government. It is unclear when and how one over steps boundaries, and when one does, a media institution can be brought to its knees by quite simply controlling ad revenue. Conversely, we are, all of us, consumers of the lowest common denominator of public interest – gossip, very often lascivious, thinly veiled as journalism, adorning our front pages in full colour, framed on TV and aired on FM. Though there is the infrequent rant, this is beneficial to politicians – the occasional warning only serves to remind media where the lines are, and who needs to be pampered in order to carve out greater revenue.
The proposed legislation around a National Press Commission to monitor print and electronic media, on the face of it, offers a way forward. But since it now comes from a government headed by a PM who openly threatens media, the Commission, for the best of intent, may be perceived as a Trojan horse to contain, censor or control media and accordingly resisted. Alternatively, in seeking to reign in unprofessional media, the government may create an institutional architecture and discretionary authority ripe for abuse by a less democratic set of individuals who gain power.
Ultimately, I hope the newspapers mentioned by the PM continue to take him to task, and publish columnists he, I and others will not agree with or even hate. We once tested and stood against the intolerance of a brutish regime. It is now time to test the tolerance of the present government. Inconvenient truths require professional media. The litmus test for government will be in how it deals with and differentiates media that is deeply critical, yet ethical versus media that is unprofessional and clearly intent on disruption and demagoguery. One thing though is clear. The PM should not be making any pronouncements on this important matter any time soon.
First published in The Sunday Island, 31 July 2016.