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Media freedom and a false dichotomy of government


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PRESS: dead? – Pic by Ruwan Walpola

Is there a void in journalistic reporting today? Has the culture of impunity which prevailed, to the detriment of the free press, been successfully arrested and imprisoned – in the past four years since ‘good government’ came into play? What could or should be done to bolster this flagging aspect of legacy media? Shall social media join the fray or lead the charge separately; in terms of speaking truth to power, in an attempt to keep government accountable? Where does the responsibility of the Fourth Estate in regard to accountability and transparency begin and end?

These are some of the questions that were on the table at a recent panel and forum discussion. Titled ‘Whither Investigative Journalism?’, the event posed these and other questions in the context of a decade since the assassination of iconic editor Lasantha Wickrematunge by killers as yet unidentified or apprehended. Despite the court of public opinion – to say nothing of a prime minister in parliament, MPs on both sides of the political divide, and the CID in court – claiming to know!

 

A man’s legacy

Many paeans of praise were sung to the slain editor. The late great Lasantha was evidently many things to many people, and more so as a source of professional inspiration. As a leader and at The Sunday Leader, he set a tone that has been hard to copy let alone match. Being a boss of a picaresque ilk, he was irrepressible as a warm human being and rightly celebrated as such by his erstwhile colleagues. However, it is as a mentor and exemplar of a particular brand of bold and ground-breaking journalism that the brave man of yore appears to have made his mark most.

Be that as it may, the man – like many great leaders – had feet of clay. Clearly that heart of gold pumped blood of a particular political colour, and some of the panellists were not loath to admit it in hindsight. While (as was attested by one panellist) he would permit his scribes to pen to their heart’s content, his own mind was singularly set on a particular political target. 

However gallant he may have been to her, or generous with others including yours truly as a columnist and arts editor among other assignments, this raises the important issue of the free press in a media house like Leader Publications under the Wickrematunge combine (Lasantha as editor-in-chief, and his brother Lal as publisher), and its responsibilities by its readership. Readers may eventually discern a bias and market forces such as poor/strong circulation punish errant media houses by lack of patronage. At least, that’s the theory. And it assumes a savvy polity buying newspapers with discernment. But we live – and always have – in a milieu where scurrilous individuals or political parties with vested interests can bankroll leading (or misleading) media houses. Even if no one buys their paper but only reads it surreptitiously. 

And if we are here to praise the free media’s ostensible champion from a decade ago, I feel it behoves us even now – after the events of his assassination and long-drawn-out investigation – to be honest to ourselves. As an industry, we owe it to our modern-day founder, a fearless embodiment of the ideal reporter. Who was also a fortune hunter in terms of pressing the natural advantages of a media house run by his family. 

That must not – and in a sense, cannot – detract from his legacy. He berthed a strong model of independent media and his professional scions are still alive and active across the spectrum of media even today. Holding the line against encroachment by dark forces threatening to turn a democracy into a broken dream.

He may not have penned that much vaunted editorial from beyond the grave. But it epitomised his undaunted spirit. Also we must be grateful for conscientious media leaders who have inherited his mantle today. These bastions (let the reader hear it) of probity have sufficient integrity to say that the article in question is widely believed to have been essayed by him. We industry insiders seem to know no better? 

 

A model’s lapses

As I grow older, there are three things I can’t remember: names, faces … and – I forget the third thing! However if there is one thing I will carry with me to my own grave, it was the heady atmosphere of the bullpen in the first five years of the Leader’s life. Hindsight has 20:20 vision. So I can see clearly now that the rain of that sun-drenched monsoon tide has subsided. 

We were a mixed bag of motives at best; a melting pot of ambitions at worst. There was nothing we feared because there was nobody our leader feared. Not even the real-life presidential inspiration for Matilda, who told such dreadful lies and nonchalantly commissioned the killing of an editor because he had irked her choler. If – under the bludgeoning of fate – our heads were bloody but unbowed, it was because the boss shielded us from those brutal body blows he and his family absorbed.

We were also sheltered from the truth. While hard facts were the currency of his political columns, I still wonder how and why we countenanced accuracy without completeness. That a corrupt political establishment felt the gadfly goad them was not in doubt then. But the few of us who challenged his praxis passim, from the days after some in-house enlightenment had dawned, must forever live with our own inexplicable complicity in the free media movement’s axe to grind. 

I leave it to the investigative reader and the reliability of the archives to analyse and ascertain if anyone was left standing after a Suranimala diatribe – and if anyone was, who that was and why. We haven’t forgotten. Even if the democratic bulwarks against despotism whom Lasantha championed pragmatically have failed to remember right how he furthered their cause in the past. 

 

A movement’s lacunae

By the way, this is in no wise meant to undermine a salutary contribution to Sri Lanka’s media landscape in the 1990s and 2000s. Or let no one think that because the vase was chipped it was any less precious. No petty flaw can excuse his egregious murder and the abysmal cover up involving killing of more innocents.

Rather, one hopes the effort at self-examination will bolster a flagging movement and bring renewed balance to a hamstrung industry. It could or should not detract from the sincerity of a vibrant media culture of 10 years ago that our bipartisan polity has undergone a sea-change into something rich and strange. Today, it is a loosely unified mercantile shambles of republicanism.

In the good old days (we were not good, not old, and our best work was done on the late night shift), there was government and there was opposition. Today, since the evolution of party politics under both blatant tyrants like Mahinda and pseudo-democrats like Ranil, there is a putative uni-culture that makes governance something of a managed spectacle. Sorry to burst the bubble of those who militated against that despicable coup of 2018… but we live and work in a milieu that is compromised by the symbiosis of political ideologies into a lucrative business.

If we’re looking to government – good, bad or merely mediocre – to establish the tenor of justice, we’re going to be disappointed. Not to make the ugliness of the underbelly of the political establishment any the more lacking in beauty. But the truth is that when it comes to social transformation by crime and punishment, successive sets of the powers that be have leaned more towards collusive criminal intent than punitive measures towards members of their own class. And layering their nefarious activities – Helping Hambantota, Basil’s “Big Heist”, the Bond Scam a la the UNP’s old ‘BOIs’ – with a patina of pretence in parliament (cf. COPE, that paper tiger) has only heightened the illusion that the state has in-built legislative checks and balances. Let the JVP dream on; politics as a business steams ahead! 

 

A monument’s lastingness 

So it’s time for journalism per se – forget, if only for a moment its truncated investigative arm – to grow up and get real. We cannot trust government per se. That much is clear after a decade under a tyrannical regime that won the war, but lost the peace. And a pseudo-democracy pursuing its own plutocratic desires has given the lie to the democratic impulse that it’s for the people that the national project is being undertaken. 

The larger question is: can we trust ourselves to speak truth to power with both accuracy and completeness? In other words: is the free media both frank and just? Or just and simply outspoken in complex selective causes? In support of our own spectrum of agendas – running the gamut from political, social, sexual, cultural, simply financial – we can no longer afford to pull the wool over our own eyes…

Could it be that we can’t see why the elephant in the room is not former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa or then Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka? Should someone ask the simpler question of the true green leaders who buttress and fortify their political citadel at the expense of justice for the dead man and all his tribe? Would a stronger position in parliament help the sea-green incorruptibles (you’d think, to hear them vilify their predecessors still) grow a pair even at this late stage, to prosecute and be damned? 

If investigative journalism has withered, it is not only because Lasantha’s body lies smouldering in the grave. It is also because the root of political chicanery no longer requires singular media houses to do their dirty work. They have their own House for that. And they’re making a pig’s breakfast of the hard-won liberties that the Leader et al. fought for in halcyon days. There is a hiatus after 10 years since his death. 

However, with his trusty acolytes in place and faithful aficionados of a free press thronging town hall and marketplace in growing numbers these days, I’m sanguine – even hopeful – that some good can still come out of the idealism of The Sunday Leader’s essential ethos. Therefore, come let us build – anew… A galaxy of stakeholders – the free media, civil society, judiciary, those independent commissions everyone’s entrusting salvation to – are gravitating towards closure. I can only hope realpolitik and some other real or sham political development won’t change the face of this gathering constellation. 

(Journalist | Editor-at-large of LMD | Writer #SpeakingTruthToPower)

(The writer is ex-Sunday Leader, and was its Chief Sub Editor 1994-1998)


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