Media freedom; then and now

Daily News Editorial

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa no doubt was a good friend of the media and still is. It is difficult to resist the charm and affability he oozes when in the company of media personnel. But when he says that the present government was intimidating the media and stifling media freedom, it is inevitable that his record vis-a-vis the media during the time of his Presidency will inevitably come under scrutiny. “We unreservedly condemn the attempt to stifle the media and to destroy the last vestiges of democracy”, Rajapaksa says, issuing a statement over an investigation currently being carried against a TV channel well known for its pro Rajapaksa bent.

Rajapaksa’s statement comes in the backdrop of a revelation made by Law and Order and Southern Development Minister Sagala Ratnayaka in Parliament on Saturday. The Minister said; “Thirteen journalists have been killed from January 2006 to January 2015. One journalist had gone missing, 87 had been assaulted and 20 had been taken into custody during the same period”. Continuing further the Minister said four private media institutions had been attacked five times during the same period and evidence in connection to those incidents had been destroyed”.

Cartoon inserted by TW from Internet

Image result for cartoons on media repression

No member of the Joint Opposition refuted the Minister’s claims, inside or outside parliament. They cannot. They were part of the system at the time where threats and intimidation of the media were only one aspect of Rajapaksa misrule. But that is neither here nor there. The former President may have portrayed himself as the darling of the press, but his record vis-a-vis the media during his presidency is left much to be desired. Nay, it is a record that is stained with blood. The statistics revealed by Minister Ratnayaka only goes to confirm this.

Rajapaksa would do well to turn the searchlight inward and ask himself if there was “media freedom and democracy” during his tenure in office? Many in the fourth estate taking a dispassionate view would contend that media freedom was there only in name. There were numerous examples, as shown by the Minister, where journalists became an endangered species under Rajapaksa rule. They dare not cross the red line, lest they have visitors to their homes or work places. Investigative journalist Keith Noyar was abducted in a white van, tortured and dumped on the road with all the tell tale signs of the ordeal he underwent at the hands of his captors very much in evidence. Upali Tennakoon, the Editor of Rivira was similarly waylaid and assaulted with blunt weapons. Both journalists had to flee the country lest they be visited by a worse fate. No investigations were conducted into these two incidents, with the Rajapaksa’s portrayal of himself as a friend of the journalists put to the test.

The fate that befell Sunday Leader Founder Editor Lasantha Wickrametunga, a close friend, or so it was said, of Mahinda Rajapaksa and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda are two other instances where the state had a clear hand in the crime, with Wickrametunga killed in a High Security Zone swarming with uniformed men and Ekneligoda vanishing from the face of the earth on the eve of the 2010 Presidential Election. Ditto for the multiple attacks on the Sirasa studios and on the Udayan newspapers in Jaffna. This, under a leader who shed copious tears at the murder of journalist Richard De Soysa and used the episode for political advancement.

To the credit of this government, the oppressive climate that stifled the free media is no longer present. Media freedom, though not the most perfect, at least has been allowed to flourish under President Sirisena. Newspapers and television channels are today free to criticize the government with some editorials even going to the extent of casting aspersions on the Prime Minister by innuendo showing him in poor light. Ditto for a TV channel which is clearly working to a political agenda.

Rajapaksa, also in his statement, has accused the government of ‘attempting to destroy the last vestiges of democracy’. It is hard to think of a Lankan leader in recent times who kicked against all norms of democracy as did MR. It was the former President, who upon assuming power, rendered impotent all the independent commissions, the pillars in a democratic setup, established under the 17th Amendment, and in one fell swoop paralysed these commissions with the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Not only that, the independence of the judiciary, a pre-requisite in a democracy, was undermined with the first woman Chief Justice in the country hounded out of office with the aid of a Kangaroo court trial by a Parliament Select Committee packed with Rajapaksa loyalists, all because she entered a judgement unfavourable to the government. Democracy was also compromised when the Attorney General’s Department was taken under the wing of the Executive, dealing a blow to its independence as well as running roughshod on independent bodies like the Judicial Services Commission. The former President is therefore not the ideal choice to talk about media freedom and democracy.