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On media freedom, of media fiefdoms

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 29 October 2015 00:00


Untitled-3Say “media freedom” to a seasoned journalist and she will roll her eyes at you. Say it to a veteran editor and it might be your head that rolls. We’ve (all) been there, done that. We’ve (some of us) bandaged war wounds shouting out the very <Free The Media!> with the very T-shirt that we bought at the front desk. A few of us have walked away from burning media houses and barely lived to tell the tales of full-frontal attacks on the press by the PSD in the good old, bad old days. And of backroom deals sealed by the paparazzi themselves that sold their colleagues for a song... and a cabinet seat...

With that said, many of the vast amorphous mass of readers of this daily press – and similar publishing outlets – still believe that there is such a thing as *media freedom*. They will swear that if it is in the papers, it must be true... and if the papers are publishing what is true, there must be media freedom. This convoluted piece of reverse engineering will seal the mindset of a self-blinded readership and salve the conscience of a gagged press in the same egoistic breath or breathless enthusiasm. And the undiscerning reader cannot distinguish the dancer who is the scribe, from the dance that is the soul of the media house, and the spirit of its backers behind the veil. But the public have the right to know – and the reader the responsibility to understand – that while the dance appears to go on, it is an unseen piper who usually plays the tune... And often even pays the dancers, too – Even if, sometimes, the piper pipes but the dancers do not dance to their tune (or at least in strict tempo, as expected).

O, tempora! O, mores! O, that the mask would slip sometimes! 

There are four diverse ways of looking at the much vexed issue. This is not a comprehensive culling of the state of media as it is today, but a representative sampling. The slice of media life offered is not to heap coals of guilt and/or shame on anyone; but rather to rouse the reader to a. a more-rounded worldview; b. a better grasp of the reality that passes for news and commentary; and c. (and perhaps most importantly) a righteous indignation at the false hope that media freedom continues to offer.  


The media is free 

The most charitable perspective to adopt puts me in mind of the Victorian poet Browning’s take on the state of life, the universe, and everything in it:

The year’s at the spring 

And day’s at the morn; 

Morning’s at seven; 

The hillside’s dew-pearled; 

The lark’s on the wing; 

The snail’s on the thorn: 

God’s in His heaven— 

All’s right with the world!

This is a childish view. The less words that I waste on it, the quicker we can get down to the res!


The free media are free

This nuanced but not genuinely sophisticated point of view fails to improve on the naivety of the one above it. It doesn’t include in its consideration set such trifles as ownership of the press and opinion of the publisher over and above facts and figures captured by reporters and fashioned into comments by editors and columns by writers. It doesn’t factor in government support or state-sector sponsorship in the form of advertising – OR the lack thereof; OR the business-politics nexus that is another way of saying >You scratch my back and I will refrain from the itching of my conscience which nothing but what the scratching of my scurrilous pen can cure; OR the hard truth that there is no such thing as a free lunch – Although politicos have that found a gift of bottled sunshine or a flashy motorbike can work a trick or three equally well...   

This is the conventional view about what a once powerful (and, now, again instrumental) minister called #The Freedom Of The Wild Ass. It is a more or less realistic representation of things in the way that they are and that we know them to be, intuitively, or instinctively. But possibly things are innately more complex than we suspect. As in the three cases (A, B, C.) cited below: 


The free media aren’t fair

A. In the early phases of our long drawn out war years, the 1990s, the supposedly free media had to resort to innovative methods to smuggle the news past the then censors. Report on a battle in Kilinochchi, or a bomb explosion in Colombo, and the military would blacken whole columns out. So wily news editors subtly and subversively resorted to satire. “No operation in the north today!” “No civilian casualties in the explosion that rocked the capital yesterday!” “Mo major corruption in arms procurements could ever be revealed tomorrow or the day after!” You get the picture about the free media then. Hardly fair by the military or the competent authority, but it certainly made the reading public sit up and take notice that all was not well with the prosecution of Sri Lanka’s crippling civil war.

B. The first flush of post-war reporting (mid-2009 on) saw the free media lean favourably towards the powers that be. There was collusion with the gallant victors and triumphalism on behalf of the moral majority. Then it was dangerously unfashionable to critically engage with the ‘zero-civilian casualties’ myth and mindset. It was downright foolhardy to point fingers at alleged war crimes and name names in emotionally explosive cases such as the white-flag massacre. It was hardly fair by the losers in the war and marked the uneasy tombstone of the media’s conscience as much as the graves of many civilians caught in the crossfire between terrorism and state terror. 

C. Then there is the emerging trend of post-conflict reportage (after the so-called January 2015 revolution). Here the onus on some members of the free press seems to be to erase the combat history of selected people and certain parties. Both major political groupings in parliament have been responsible for this wiping the slate clean of vast tracts of politico-military happenings which shaped the country which a younger generation of readers has inherited. One such news item was published just this week in a daily paper. 

The article in question reported that a senior ex-militant intended to join with a moderate political party reflecting the aspirations of an ethnic minority. The article was factual enough. One feature of it – a box-timeline of the controversial combatant’s chequered career – left something to be desired in terms of the bigger picture. It stated the year he was born. It mentioned his political history up to the point he joined up with a group of separatists. Then it fast-forwarded to his appointment as an MP for a party now out of power and his subsequent party membership and related activities for that political coalition. But it omitted any mention of his defection from the separatists; who engineered that strategic occurrence; and under whose aegis he initially functioned to turn the tide of the war in the then government’s favour and ultimately to Sri Lanka’s benefit. 

These lacunae point to a press that is relatively free (there is no fear as in former times about mentioning the names of unmentionable personalities) but not really fair (there is still some reluctance to implicate certain key players who were instrumental in reshaping the war effort by strategic means that might engender unfavourable commentary). Such reporting is accurate but incomplete. Let us not presume to beg the question why this paper doesn’t hold up a mirror to the realities that reflect the nexus between newspaper groups and certain influential politicians or even statesmen in the making.  

These realities invite a critical view. They reflect a truer state of play in the stresses and tensions between publishers and competent authorities alike, as well as between independent journalists and their editors.


No media is free and fair

This isn’t a dog eat dog business. We don’t criticise – or, more to the point, we didn’t use to criticise – our fellow scribes. At least, not in print, we don’t. But today much more than mere column centimetres are dedicated to singing the hosannas of the casuists of the new political culture who have embraced the new media culture as its catamites. So pardon us if we lump the saints and the sophisticates and the sodomites in the same media closet.

This is a challenging view. But it is one that will gain little traction in the marketplace. Because the old-boy network has spread its greasy palms and has the testes of business and politics and (dare we say) civil society in its firm and unforgiving grasp. There is a fifth and final perspective of media freedom that is demonstrably closer to the truth. Irony, dear reader, if indeed you do get to read this...


It isn’t about media freedom. It’s about media fiefdoms.

One or two thinly veiled examples might suffice to illustrate this sorry but not so strange reality.

Do consider a hypothetical case... the publishing group that protects a scion of a powerful family who might be accused of nepotism by unscrupulous journalists, by censoring the latter but not censuring the former in any form. Do consider another such instance – a media house that excoriates society and even the state when it falls short of consultative representative democracy; but fails to clean up its own house of dictatorial media barons who rule their roosts with iron fists – often veiled in velvet gloves. It is a sign of the times when such hypocrisy passes unchallenged and uncommented upon... not because no one dares, or no one will, but because no one can. 

This is a cautionary view. For under the righteous rule of men and mercantilism entirely great, the pen of politically correct commentary is mightier than the sword of piercing journalism: that probes its own home first, or pricks its conscience on the thorn of pragmatic self-censorship.

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