The government has taken a great deal of flak for reviving the Press Council law seen as an attempt at silencing the media. Its leading proponents claim the Press Complaints Commission has proved to be a poor substitute for the Press Council and there is a pressing need for an effective mechanism to protect the people’s rights as regards excesses on the part of the media.
This newspaper made no bones about its position on the Press Council law in an editorial comment, A Statutory White Van on June 24, 2009. We said among other things: "There is no way President Rajapaksa can justify the lifting of the SLPC out of a state of suspended animation. Media associations quote him chapter and verse: He, as the Opposition Leader, waxed eloquent in Parliament defending as he did media freedom to the hilt, when an amendment was moved to repeal laws relating to criminal defamation. The amendment was carried unanimously rendering the Press Council law inoperative in 2003."
We do not intend to repeat ourselves boringly by penning another comment on the same subject. Instead, we discuss some related issues such as the politicisation of media rights campaigns. We often fault other workers' unions for having reduced themselves to a group of palanquin bearers of politicians and turned May Day into a political circus. The same is true of journalists who have failed to be independent of politicians in campaigning for their legitimate rights. Some of them have become pliable tools in the hands of foreign governments for a fistful of dollars, pounds, kronor, kroner, kronur etc. to peddle anti-national agendas.
Joining forces with politicians to win media rights is a self-defeating exercise for journalists as the political knights in shining armour have skeletons (of journalists) in their ornate cupboards. They may look good and genuinely interested in ensuring the wellbeing of the media but looks are deceptive.
Good politicians are of three kinds, in our book: Not yet born, dead or out of power. It is only after being ensconced in power that politicians bare their fangs. All it takes for Jekylls in politics to transform their good selves into Hydes is an electoral victory!
So, the hapless members of the Fourth Estate always have friends in the Opposition. President Mahinda Rajapaksa earned plaudits as a champion of media freedom while he was languishing in the Opposition. He fought daring battles with the JRJ and Premadasa governments in defence of the media and democracy. Today, he stands accused of suppressing the media. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, too, was an ardent champion of free media and democracy in her Opposition days but she proved to be no better than her predecessors who had developed muzzling the press to a fine art.
On Tuesday, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe spoke in defence of press freedom at a meeting in Colombo, organised by seven media rights outfits to pressure the government to repeal the draconian provisions in the Press Council Act. Yesterday, we reported some of the salient points in his speech. He said it was a tragedy that those who fought for media freedom were branded as traitors while those who destroyed it were considered patriots. The number of journalists wearing pirith nool, he said, was on the rise in view of threats to them. He fired a broadside at some media personnel who, he said, were acting like General Philippe Petain, who had first fought valiantly against the Nazis but subsequently surrendered part of France to Hitler. Media freedom did not belong to the journalistic fraternity alone, said the Opposition Leader, but to all citizens and, therefore, everyone had to stand up and be counted in the fight against the Press Council Act.
The Opposition Leader could justifiably claim the credit for having repealed the criminal defamation law in 2002. One thing good about the executive presidency is that thanks to it we get affable prime ministers. For, they are powerless to act according to their whims and fancies and feel insecure. Remember a frustrated Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, dwarfed by President JRJ, famously said he was as powerless as a peon. Therefore, premiers usually behave, in dealing with the press.
When Chandrika became Prime Minister in 1994, many thought the country had had the best ever premier! By the time Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had the criminal defamation law scrapped, he, embroiled in a tussle with President Kumaratunga, was eyeing the presidency. He was obviously wooing the media. (Why he did not abolish that obnoxious law after becoming Prime Minister in 1993 is the question.)
However, Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe had no qualms about being a prominent minister of the JRJ and Premadasa regimes which specialised in terrorising the media. When Richard de Zoysa was abducted, killed and vilified posthumously in Parliament by the Premadasa government, Wickremesinghe did not make a whimper of protest, though that crime was a massive blow to the media.
The Opposition Leader's reference to Petain is quite ironical. Of course, there are Petains in journalism ready to compromise anything for self-advancement. Similarly, this country has its fair share of Petains in politics, who officially recognised the LTTE-controlled areas in 2002 at the expense of the national interest in keeping with an ill-conceived peace deal and almost ceded the North and the East to terrorists at the behest of Norway. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga offered the North to Prabhakaran for ten years without elections.
It is intriguing why Wickremesinghe, in his speech, left out the most infamous of all collaborators, Quisling. Maybe he was wary of mentioning that dirty name as he did not want to evoke people's memories of the CFA ‘02 crafted by the wily Norwegians in favour of the LTTE and foisted on Sri Lanka through the then servile UNF government.
As for pirith nool, we believe the media personnel must wear them all the time for their protection so long as politicians are around: History shows that journalists have been harmed under all political dispensations. They should also be mindful of the fact that their liberation lies within themselves and it is a big mistake for them to depend on politicians for deliverance. Remember when the Speaker regretted in the House the other day that Parliament had, of its own volition, curtailed its powers to summon journalists at will, not a single MP on either side uttered a word in favour of journalists. So much for politicians' love for the media!