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Of media freedom and other “myth”

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 15 February 2017 10:23

 DFT-15-7FOURTH ESTATE, OR FIFTH COLUMN – “I may disagree with what you say. But I will to defend to the death your right to say it.” So much has been said and reams written on the nature and scope of the free media in Sri Lanka which does not bear repeating. With that said, perhaps the fault lies not in the branches of government, but in the arms – and wrists – of journalists, editors, writers, et al., themselves?



In February, I’m reminded of media freedom. Initially, because the Fourth of February each year brings a fresh appreciation of all types of liberties. But then again, the mind goes back to how things were under a previous dispensation. 

That a national newspaper editor – albeit the quintessential political animal: Lasantha – was killed in cold blood by masked men in the high street a slaughterer’s bolt’s sling away from a high-security zone. There was also the profound shock of an ostensibly apolitical senior journalist who was pathetically slain in her home by someone purporting to be a casual labourer (whose workman he really was is anyone’s guess, as Mel was often on the trail of the high and mighty those days…). As well as the egregious roughing up of a renaissance man sportscaster – Shanaka won’t be flattered by faint praise – by ruggerites close to the rougher regime that ruled the roost in times gone by. These last two were both in February of 2014…

Today, the clouds have parted and the sweet light of reason shines through. Well, almost. While the media in its myriad forms remains free to essay comment and make a mouthful of what little information passes for news, facts are sacred but propaganda also abounds as under previous administrations. 

Governments all come with their respective gospels, and the people are free to accept, reject, or ignore the good news brought by each avatar of the powers that be. The powers themselves remain equally free of public pressure in the main… even if, occasionally, a signally good piece of critically engaged prose or a scandalous exposé rocks the establishment to its pedicured toes… to extract that requisite resignation, transfer, or cover-up.


Be that as it may, speaking one’s mind is hardly a matter of casting pearls before swine in the prevalent media milieu. Under the rule of men still not entirely great (but a good deal better than the previous deadly lot), the pen is mightier – and murkier – than the sword.3851

The news we report is hardly worth writing home about, as sensationalism has died a natural death under a more balanced journalistic regimen. What sterling comment is made is studiously ignored by the stalwarts who become increasingly adept at turning a cyclopean eye on corruption and other near-criminal realities in their ranks. Right to information simply means that there is more work to be done to dig out a story that is not worth writing and which nobody reads anyway. And certainly not with a view to challenging the status quo – or suffering a sea-change in the socio-political culture that has always held sway…

So did (definitely) the Lasanthas and (maybe) the Mels die in vain? Did the disappearance of Ekneligoda, the assassination of Taraki, or the brutalisation of Keith Noyahr achieve anything salutary for the state of the media or accomplish any major gain in the national interest?

Have the press barons who relished his wit, wisdom, and integrity learned a lesson in political probity and standing up for their yeomen after the killing of immortalised Richard de Zoysa? Or is mainstream media so much a business – often, even blatantly, a by-product of some ambitious politician’s vainglorious attempt to whitewash self and regime – that it can no longer be relied on to serve the nobler aspirations of journalism?

Is social media slowly but surely replacing print and electronic media as the safest best, the surest way, the strongest means, of speaking truth to power? (As usual, many if not most of these questions will resonate in the average readers’ mind for less than an iota of a news cycle – about half a day, if not half an hour – and then be relegated to the dustbin of rhetoric.)


The free media today have arguably more agency than ever before. They can argue in public using their newspaper columns, or debate issues freely utilising broadband and airtime – without fear of reprisals. Of course, there are pockets of displeasure in parliament and murmurs of disapproval from prime ministerial suites and presidential offices. As well as the occasional but mercifully infrequent accosting and manhandling of scribes by mandarins or military seniors!

In the limit, however, the consummation that was devoutly to be wished under successive governments of the past has come to pass. Journalists who fraternised with revolutionaries out of regard for their own conscience or sympathised with anti-government rebels as a matter of integrity no longer wind up dead on Wella Beach after hours of agonising torture. Editors are no longer cannon-fodder for capricious presidents, who may order the accidental deaths of a brace of such anarchists before breakfast. Writers are recognised as a legitimate Fourth Estate contributing to the shaping of the nation-state rather than a lamentable Fifth Column counterpointing the national interest or subverting sundry political agendas.

However, the free media is – as has been a regrettable reality in the face of any real resistance – soft, compliant, malleable for the most part, susceptible to governmental gospels, an agent for sly agendas of favoured princes rather than agents provocateurs against lean and hungry men who would sell their grandmother for the sake of glory or the greater treasure of corpulent unnumbered bank accounts overseas.


Maybe the next steps are in the direction of instrumentality? Media investigations – like political revolutions – more often than not tend to establish the status quo or endorse the very cultures and regimes they seek to critique and countermand! When was the last time anything you saw in print made any discernible difference to the way the world is run or things are done? 

Well, there was the pressure which public disapprobation brought to bear on the scandal of the CBSL governor. And, following media coverage of civil society activism, excessive stipulations of a proposed counterterrorism act were quietly dropped by a cowed administration. Maybe, the failure of Mahinda & Co. to make any headway in terms of a prime ministerial nominee-type comeback may also be attributed to media advocacy and/or outspokenness. 

With those signal exceptions, perhaps the role of the free media in championing the national interest and giving civil society a stage to voice its concerns and consternation at ‘the way things are’ vis-à-vis ‘the way it ought to be’ leaves something to be desired.

Perhaps the RTI Act – “enshrined as a fundamental right under the 19th Amendment”, as a fellow scribe observes –will be the afterburner to lend media championship of causes a turbo-boost. It’s early days, however, since “it only came into effect on 3rd February … and has not had any impact yet on any type of journalism”, the same source adds. 

The beginning of many good movements in time and history have simply been a few good men – and/or women – talking about what matters most to them. Hope in this government (or any administration, for that matter) bringing to book the perpetrators of violent crime against our tribe has dwindled to a trickle up the driest of creeks – and this, at that, under the rule of men (not) entirely great when pen is, etc etc. There seems little point in militating against the combined might of lamentable realpolitik and latent ‘national interestism’ that prevents any headway being made… It is a bitter lesson the free media would do well to never forget.


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