‘De mortuis nil nisi bonum’—say nothing but the good about the dead—Chilon said. But, we may find it difficult to do so as regards all departed political leaders, the fallout of whose actions continues to haunt us. A critical view should, therefore, be taken of the past leaders and their doings, whether they are dead or alive.
Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe did, on Thursday, as Chilon said. Speaking at a ceremony to mark the 15 th death anniversary of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, he eulogised his late leader. If one were to go by his assessment of President Premadasa, then one would mistake the late leader for an infallible man or a paragon of virtue. He was far from that. He, like any other leader, had his strengths and weaknesses. And his style of governance which radically departed from that of his predecessors and successors needs to be kept in perspective.
The Opposition Leader has lashed out at the media for publishing ‘vituperative and revengeful’ attacks on the late President Premadasa while keeping mum on flagrant human rights violations by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. He is entitled to his views. But, it is our view that the Rajapaksa government is taking enough flak from the press.
It is natural that no opposition finds any attack on a government in power devastating enough. For, an Opposition banking on the media to assist it in ousting a government is like a passenger in an indecent hurry travelling in a bus not moving as fast as he wants. The present Opposition wants the press to disregard everything else and go at its opponents hammer and tongs so that it will be able to achieve its goal—capturing power. But the question is whether the media should act like storm-troopers of any political party.
Human rights groups also have their own agendas. Even the LTTE is championing human rights these days! That human rights have become a bludgeon in the hands of foreign powers to be used against governments in the developing countries is only too well known. Some human rights outfits are mere appendages of political parties. They function as pressure groups until their political masters get elected. The human rights movement that Mahinda Rajapaksa led in the late 1980s and the Mothers’ Front of Mangala Samaraweera et al during that period, fall into this category. They simply ceased to be after the SLFP-led PA formed a government in 1994. It is a supreme irony that President Rajapaksa today stands accused of violating human rights!
The late President Premadasa also championed human rights of the JVP suspects, when he was in the Opposition in the 1970s. He wept buckets for Premawathie Manamperi of Kataragama before the 1977 General Election. But under his regime from 1988 to 1990, this country witnessed hundreds, if not thousands, of girls being tortured and killed just like Premawathie together with their male counterparts. The LTTE fronts are also masquerading as human rights organisations with the objective of protecting the human rights of the inhuman terrorists who get caught in the southern parts of the country.
Thus, there is reason for the press to tread cautiously in championing human rights. For, it runs the risk of being used to further someone else’s sinister interests. This is not to argue that the press should dither on the question of human rights, trotting out lame excuses. Instead, the point being made is that how the press should campaign for human rights is a matter that must be left entirely to it. It should be wary of campaigning in a manner or at a pace to be determined by politicians, if it is not to lose its credibility. That the press is capable of jolting a government into respecting human rights, without being prodded on by politicians, became evident when a move was made to evict a large number of Tamil civilians from lodges in Colombo last year. The media acted in unison and aborted that attempt in record time.
The late President Premadasa, the Opposition Leader has said, permitted media freedom. This newspaper knows better than anyone else how he treated the media. He sent us on a journey through hell, to say the least. His day would begin with a tirade against us and he did everything possible to send us out of business. We have reliable information that during the late 1980s, some members of his government conspired to destroy our press with a rocket attack, which was later abandoned due to strong protests from the late Minister Ranjan Wijeratne. Journalists were harassed and assaulted on numerous occasions under the Premadasa regime. In 1992, UNP goons set upon a group of journalists covering a DUNF protest opposite the Fort Railway Station. Cameras were smashed and the media men were assaulted with bicycle chains and clubs. Some of them were pistol-whipped. When they went to the Fort Police to lodge a complaint, the OIC had the temerity to tell them that the police station had been closed! Later adding insult to injury, the then Prime Minister and Deputy Defence Minister D. B. Wijetunga audaciously claimed the journalists had been attacked by irate train commuters who had been disturbed by the protest in question. That prompted this newspaper to ask whether ordinary passengers carried pistols, bicycle chains and clubs on their way to work! It was also under the Premadasa government that Richard de Zoysa was abducted and assassinated. A senior UNP minister stooped to the level of insulting him posthumously in Parliament in a bid to justify his assassination.
Only the state TV and radio were allowed to carry local news bulletins until 1994, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power. The late President Premadasa should have permitted that under his watch, if there had been total media freedom at that time.
However, President Premadasa had qualities that even his worst critics admired. He was a man of action and felt for the poor. He constructed roads, electrified villages, took industries to the rural backwaters and built townships. Tens of thousands of people benefited from his housing programme. His garment factory project has stood the country in good stead. Even those who dismissed that scheme as jangi (knickers) factories are now dependent on the income it generates to keep the economy going. But for his jangis, their economic nudity would have been exposed!
A section of the press may have been unkind to him and he to it. But it is not the press that destroyed him. He was a victim of the elite who worked in mysterious ways to undermine his authority and bring about his downfall, as he was not one of them. The abortive attempt to impeach him also resulted from plots being hatched by the elite to oust him. If he had not been assassinated by the LTTE, he would have been politically destroyed or driven to suicide.