ON the face of it, Sri Lanka’s media has appeared free and independent for years. Newspaper publications have increased; the number of privately owned television and radio stations has gone up several fold; and independently operated news websites are flourishing.
These were exactly the reasons cited by the country’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and many in his administration to dismiss the allegations of media suppression levelled at them and to illustrate the vibrancy of the Sri Lankan media. And while the number of groups disseminating news has been on the rise and there has been no official censorship of news for years, the repression of the media under the previous administration had reached an alarming level.
Journalists were killed, threatened and intimidated; scores of them fled the country, many during the past five years. The most high-profile murder was of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of a leading Sunday weekly on Jan 8, 2009. This along with the killing of several other journalists remained unresolved despite repeated assurances by the former regime.
It became quite routine for journalists who wrote hard-hitting articles against the government to be asked if the ‘white vans’ had not come for them yet. By then ‘white vans’ had come to be identified with the goon squads that had become notorious for picking up those seen as politically opposed to the Rajapaksa regime. Some disappeared without a trace; others were brutally beaten up and dumped. Chief among their victims were media personnel.
The Sri Lankan media will hopefully be able to work more freely.
Now with the unexpected change in leadership, following the defeat of Rajapaksa at the presidential poll held on Jan 8, and the election of Maithripala Sirisena as his successor, there is cautious optimism among media personnel that better days are ahead.
In his election manifesto, Sirisena promised “meaningful and substantial media freedom” in the country which included the enactment of right to information (RTI) legislation, a long-standing demand of media activists in the country. It is notoriously difficult to access official documentation in Sri Lanka and hence RTI should open up access to information that is both useful to journalists as well as members of the public.
The new government has moved quickly to fulfil its promises to the media, saying that RTI would be enacted within the next few weeks. It has also promised fresh investigations into the killings of journalists under the previous regime and recently reopened the Wickramatunga murder case. Sri Lankan journalists who went into exile fearing for their lives too have been sent an open invitation to return with guarantees for their personal security.
Several news websites that were blocked under the previous regime have been unblocked and the new media minister, Gayantha Karunatillake, has said that there will be no curbs on how and what the media report on.
Sri Lanka’s media has had a chequered past. Their freedom to work without fear of reprisals is not something that was experienced only under the Rajapaksa administration which took office in 2004. From the early 1970s onwards, when the then government brought under its control the largest newspaper publication group, successive governments have retained the status quo and continued to use state-run media organisations for political propaganda. However things took a turn for the worse under Rajapaksa.
Heavy self-censorship was imposed by the media itself during the years 2005-2009 when the Rajapaksa government was battling a ruthless terrorist organisation in the north of the country, which resulted in even privately owned media institutions under-reporting on military casualties or excesses committed in the battlefield.
Many expected the reins placed on the media to loosen once the war was over but instead the grip got tighter, this time not to keep bad news from the battlefield from reaching the public, but to hide the large-scale corruption and abuse of power taking place within the higher echelons of the administration of president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
What Mahinda Rajapaksa promised in his election manifesto was better housing and better training facilities for journalists. However, the promise of more freedom for the media by his opponent was clearly the more attractive option, which was endorsed by the majority of people who also voted for a more democratic set-up for the country.
A popular Tweet doing the rounds on Jan 8, the day which also marked the sixth death anniversary of slain editor Wickramatunga read “the only journalist a politician loves is a dead one”. So far this has been true of Sri Lanka but under President Sirisena who has been elected on the promise of building a more compassionate society, there seems to be an opening for Sri Lankan journalists to work under less hostile conditions.
The writer is assistant editor at Sri Lanka’s The Sunday Times.
Published in Dawn January 29th, 2015