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The media under siege and scrutiny

The most distinguishing feature of Indian Foreign Secretary Shivashakar Menon’s visit to Sri Lanka is its non-controversial nature. Given the background build up especially in Tamil Nadu, which led to this visit, many people expected a great deal of controversy. But up to the time of writing, the trip has been mostly a goodwill visit. The Saturday morning meeting between Menon and the president had gone off very well, and not a word was discussed about the war. It appears that the Indians can hardly conceal their glee that a canker that would have threatened India itself, is now being taken care of without any expense or trouble on her part.

We are now going through what is probably the worst period for the Sri Lankan media since the origin of formal mass media in this country. Even though this is the first time that a newspaper editor had been killed in this country, and an arson attack launched on a major TV station, those are but two incidents in an ongoing drama. The live interview with the defense secretary over the state and private media on Thursday night is a case in point. The interview went well, until he came to the media, and at this point he lost his composure and an agitated secretary not only accused Sirasa of having burnt down their own control room in order to claim the insurance money, he also threatened the MTV journalist who spoke about the attack to CNN with arrest.

There is good news and bad news with regard to this outburst. The good news is that the fact that the defense secretary did not lose his composure when he spoke of the LTTE which is the world’s deadliest terrorist outfit and which once even tried to assassinate him shows that the Tigers are on their way out and has ceased to be of overriding concern. The bad news is that the media has replaced the LTTE in the sights of some. It is now better to be a Tamil civilian in the north than a Sinhala journalist in Colombo because more concern is shown about the Tamil civilians in the operational areas than about members of the fourth estate in the south.

The world stage

While the finger pointing in the wake of the Sirasa attack and the murder of Lasantha can be infuriating, nobody is going to be any the wiser by counter finger pointing followed up by threats of arrest against those who point the finger at the government. In the north-eastern theatre of war, much care has been taken to avoid civilian casualties and even though bombing raids are being carried out on a daily basis, the bombing in Sri Lanka has not been claiming civilian lives like those in the Gaza strip. All the international kudos won through this could be made to evaporate overnight with accusations that the armed forces are behind attacks on media institutions and the assassination of journalists.

One thing that the defense secretary’s interview made quite clear is that as the war against the LTTE draws to a close, the entire military establishment is playing to an international audience as well as a local audience. His mention of Indian security advisor Narayanan’s description of Sarath Fonseka as the world’s best army commander and of the Israeli’s wanting to talk to the navy’s operations director about the way to handle terrorist suicide boat attacks shows that the military wants their turn on the world stage.

The mention of General Slim of the British army, who prevailed over the Malaysian insurgents in the 1950’s – the only instance where a conventional army triumphed over a guerilla force - shows that the belief is that the next General Slim will be from Sri Lanka. They obviously want their names in the military history books of the world and in the training manuals of the Israeli and American armies. Rightly so, perhaps, given that the FBI had only last year described the LTTE as the deadliest terrorist outfit in the world. The natural corollary is that the army that defeats such an organization is the most effective military force in the world.

There would no doubt be many in the military establishment who would be eying lucrative consultancies overseas once the war is over. With such heady notions in mind, bad press in the international media could torpedo everything. They would go down in history not as heroes but as murderers and arsonists - hence, probably, the fury and the anguish.

It was not just the defense secretary who has been lashing out in this manner at the media in recent times. Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw the leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremsinghe fulminating in very similar fashion, both inside and outside parliament against the Daily Mirror. The only difference was that the defense secretary was shouting ‘thrastahwadiyo!’ (terrorists) at sections of the media while Wickremesinghe was shouting ‘jaathiwadiyo!’ (chauvinists) against a newspaper owned by his maternal uncle.

In fact during his speech in parliament attacking the Daily Mirror, Wickremesinghe seemed even more agitated than the defense secretary during Thursday’s TV interview. Besides Wickremesinghe’s attacks continued over several days – all because a columnist in the Daily Mirror had described him as a ‘weak leader’. Perhaps the defense secretary had more reason to be agitated because the finger pointing that he was fulminating against related to arson and murder - no less.

While one cannot condone such emotional outbursts, it has to be acknowledged that finger pointing can in fact ruin people’s lives. What we are seeing now is similar to the very public fury and anguish of President Premadasa over accusations that he was responsible for Lalith Athulathmudali’s death. At the time that he was killed, Lalith was out of parliament and not even a pradesheeya sabha member. Many believe there was no need for the LTTE to kill him except as a way of passing the blame off on the Premadasa government. Others argue that the LTTE has always worked to bump off able Sinhala leaders.

One has to acknowledge that the LTTE has been adept at manipulating democracy and the democratic party system with great skill to suit their ends. They know that in the present scenario bus bombs or even lorry bombs would have no effect on the public, so it could well be that they did deploy their resources to undermine the government politically, by bringing it into disrepute. As I said last week, I am keeping an open mind on this because we were proved wrong with regard to both the Richard de Zoysa and D.P.Sivaram killings.

The rot within

It was not just from outside that the media was under siege last week but from within as well. In fact, had Lasantha not been murdered the week before last, the newspaper article that would have gained the most attention last weekend would have been an article by Victor Ivan in the Ravaya on "The moral crisis within the media". The cartoon that went with it depicted a self righteous journalist standing on a pile of dollar notes – an image which said it all. There was a rebuttal of this article by the Free Media Movement, published in today’s Ravaya. But it will take more than that to clear up the prevailing mess. Ivan has revealed to the public the details behind a scandal the existence of which was first revealed to the public through the Island which reported the resignation of Sunanda Deshapriya from the board of the Centre for Policy Alternatives following an internal investigation relating to the misuse of funds.

Internal investigations have since been initiated within the Press Institute and the Free Media Movement as well. Ivan has been scathing in his criticism of the general conspiracy within the media to keep the scandal under wraps. He says that we who agitate for the free flow of information and the right of the public to know what is happening are guilty of having suppressed this right when our own goodwill and credibility is at stake.

Ivan reveals that when the Free Media Movement was first formed, the constitution did not allow an open membership which would enable any professional journalist to join the organization. On the contrary, it restricted membership to a chosen few. Originally, it did not have paid employees or a budget. But later, the organization had begun attracting enormous foreign funding. This process had given rise to ‘media advocates’ among journalists. These media advocates had then begun setting the agenda for the media in the country and there was a huge income differential between what these media advocates were making out of their advocacy of media rights and what genuine journalists made from their work.

Ivan revealed that for the past four years there have been two individuals paid by an international funding agency to protect journalists under threat. The monthly salary of each of these guardians is 750 Euros. In addition to this, they get fuel allowances, telephone allowances, laptops and related expenses, which could bring the remuneration package in Ivan’s estimate, up to Rs 200,000 per month.

Even though there were two such individuals to look after the welfare of journalists, very few real journalists know about their existence, charges Ivan. There are not only ‘guardians’ appointed by foreign funding agencies to look after the safety of journalists but also a fund to help journalists under threat administered by the Sri Lanka Press Institute. A steering committee that included the SLPI’s director general and a representative of FMM took decisions on disbursements from an annual budget of Rs.8.2 million per year – an amount which Ivan says would give the reader a rough idea of how big the money was. Problems had arisen as to how this money has been utilized. Ivan had scathing criticisms of the manner in which the Press Institute conducted some of its training programs as well, and charges that these have become milch cows for three or four well placed individuals.

For individuals who thrive on threats to the media, the past two weeks would have been the happiest days of their lives. One editor killed, one TV station torched and both the opposition leader and the defense secretary vying with one another to intimidate journalists. If there are no threats there’s no funding and in this sense, with Thursday’s outburst alone the defense secretary would have earned more foreign exchange for the country than some minor export crops. In fact it could well be that if the defense secretary ceases to make such threats, especially threats of arrest, the media advocates of this country will stage public protests like those held by cinnamon, rubber and tea smallholders, demanding that the government do something to safeguard their livelihoods!

Action has to be taken to put the media scene in order. While there is nothing wrong in foreign funding agencies giving money to media organizations, they should ensure that this money goes to organizations with an open membership and not exclusive cabals, however prominent the members of such cabals may be. If the general public knew of the rot that has set in within the media organizations championing the cause of media freedom, they would be prepared to believe anything that the government says on the subject. Even the line that a TV station burnt down its own control room to claim the insurance money may not sound too far fetched. The entire sector has to suffer due to the actions of a few and this has to change.

An impending dictatorship?

When the JVP operations committee for the Central and Wayamba Provincial Council elections met last week, party general secretary Tilvin Silva said that the military operations going on in the north was a battle to restore democracy to the north of the country but that in the meantime, the democratic rights of those living in the south were being eroded. Somawansa Amarasinghe said that if these military victories are to have any meaning democracy should be strengthened but that there was no sign of the government doing that. A journalist has been killed, and a media institution attacked and there was a general repression against those holding views different to the government.

He continued on to say that the 17th amendment had not been implemented and that the government did not respect the existing laws in the country. This was clear with the flouting of the Supreme Court order on fuel prices. Amarasinghe further stated that the government had embarked on an anti-democratic path and that the ground was being prepared for a dictatorship. Anura Kumara Dissanayake said that the UNP was trying to make use of this to heap opprobrium on the armed forces and that the blame for these undemocratic acts should not be aimed at the armed services.

The leader of the opposition visited Anuradhapura for the late General Janaka Perera’s third month alms giving at the Shanthi Viharaya. This alms giving was attended by P.Harrison, Chandrani Bandara and others in the Anuradhpura district. Janaka Perera was assassinated by a suicide bomber during an opening ceremony for a UNP party office in Anuradhapura town. Despite the fact that they both lived in the town, neither Chandrani Bandara or P.Harrison were present. The UNP was quick to point a finger at the government over Perera’s killing. They were right in saying that the government failed to provide adequate security to General Perera who was an LTTE target. But instead of stopping at saying this was what enabled the LTTE to get General Perera so easily, the UNP went even further trying to say that it was not the LTTE that murdered Perera, but the government itself. They had used a suicide bomber belonging to the Karuna group and that Karuna’s appointment to parliament was as a reward for getting rid of Perera for the government.

The UNP was lucky that the government did not turn around and propound a counter-conspiracy theory based on the fact that no UNP parliamentarian was present on the day that a party office was opened in the heart of Anuradhapura town and that this could be a plot hatched from within the UNP to kill Perera. The real situation was that both Harrison and Chandrani Bandara thought of Perera was a threat to their own continued dominance in the district and absented themselves from any events organized by Perera. But now that Perera is safely gone, they thought it fit to grace his third month alms giving.

With all these happenings, the two provincial council elections in Wayamba and the Central Province have been all but forgotten. Karu Jayasuriya has been given his first major assignment after resuming duties as the deputy leader of the party – the Wayamba campaign. Tissa Attanayake has been assigned to the Central Province and they have been instructed to conduct their campaigns in the two provinces separately. Attanayake’s job is not so difficult given that S.B. Dissanayake is the candidate. He, of all possible UNP candidates, has the best chance of winning. Jayasuriya has been assigned to do something much more difficult. Chamal Senarath, the UNP’s chief ministerial candidate got the slot only because the UNP couldn’t find a willing celebrity. Senarath is said to be of a good family background and a very decent man. But he has been in the provincial council for years and contested parliamentary elections but never got enough preference votes to make it to parliament. This makes it extremely unlikely that he can win Wayamba on behalf of the UNP. Jayasuriya has been assigned to lead a battle that has already been lost.

Journalistic ‘give and take?’

On Wednesday, a special discussion was held at the Cambridge Place office of the UNP leader to discuss ways and means of facing government repression. They decided on a slogan for the future "Jeewithayata Idak, prakashanayata handak". As the UNP continued to point the finger at the government and specifically the president, even burning an effigy of Mahinda Rajapaksa at Lasantha’s funeral, the president was at pains last week to make public the nature of the relationship that Lasantha had with him. When the heads of media institutions met the president on Thursday last week, the main topic was Lasantha Wickremetunga. To show the media heads present how close he was to Lasantha at the latter stages, the president said that Lasantha had on several occasions, recorded things said by various people and given him the tapes! He had specifically mentioned one case involving Kumar Rupesinghe.

Rupesinghe had during a conversation with Lasantha said among other things that Tamil officers were persona non grata at the presidential secretariat due to security concerns and described this situation as atrocious. Another matter he had discussed with Lasantha had been that Sarvodaya had been given a government grant of Rs. 65 million and he had wanted to know why one NGO had been singled out for favour by the government. Another accusation that Rupesinghe had made was that it was a team sent by the president who was responsible for the assault on Dr Johnpulle and the burning of his house during the North Central Provincial Council elections. A tape of this entire conversation had found its way to the president.

The president had then phoned Rupesinghe and contradicted what had been alleged. Much to Rupesinghe’s surprise, the president had played a recording of the conversation between him and Lasantha. The president now claims that it had been given to him by Lasantha himself. At the time of the incident Rupesinghe himself had suspected Lasantha to be the conduit through which the president had got hold of this tape and he had at that time warned everybody in the diplomatic circles in Colombo not to trust Lasantha. What are we to make of these revelations which are obviously meant to show that the president had no motive to get rid of Lasantha?

That Lasantha had been meeting the president on a regular basis recently is now a well known fact. But this story that he had been recording conversations with other people and playing those back to the president is going to shock many. There could be alternative explanations as to how that tape found its way to the president. Rupesinghe confirms that he did hear the president playing the tape back to him; so the president did actually have such a recording. One explanation could be that the president got it through intelligence sources who may have tapped Rupesinghe’s phone or bugged his office as he is the leader of the now dormant Anti-War Front. The other explanation is of course that Lasantha himself did hand over the tape to the president. During the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime, one of the main sources of inside information for Lasantha had been the president who was then a minister, and these two have been at this cloak and dagger game for years.

Lasantha may have started getting exclusives from the president once again after they made up and in order to get the best, there has to be some quid pro quo. A shaken Rupesinghe, soon after the president’s phone call, had described Lasantha as a ‘double agent’ to members of the diplomatic community. But to Lasantha, this may have been nothing more than the ‘free flow of information’ which unfortunately came to light because the president lost his temper over the accusations made by Rupesinghe. Such information is never meant to be acted on. The moral of this story is perhaps that no journalist gets something for nothing and the more sensational the scoop, the more he would have had to bend over backwards to get it.

For his part, Rupesinghe, who would have been at the receiving end of a Medamulana-style telling off, couldn’t be too happy about the fact that his discomfiture could be due to Lasantha’s news gathering techniques. Never has so much dirty linen with regard to the media been washed in public in the course of a single week. The president himself has done something that no journalist would do – reveal his source of information with regard to what Rupesinghe had said. But then he’s not a journalist, and given the position he is in, the president understandably cares less about what his revelations will do to Lasantha’s posthumous reputation than about his need to escape blame for Lasantha’s murder.

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