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Media Freedom: alive and not so well… is it?

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 22 September 2017 00:00


FOURTH ESTATE, OR FIFTH COLUMN? In the good old days, it was said that journalists could be bought for a snifter of bottled sunshine. Today, it’s “sunshine stories” that too many scribes in the so-called free media milieu are bottling for public consumption. While far more murder mysteries than is healthy for a civil society vis-à-vis its editors and writers lie unsolved, a conspiracy of the willing is being hatched for the further enforced willing suspension of disbelief under administrations ostensibly championing the maxim that the pen is mightier than the spoken word. At liberty for a brace of years, and with the newfound independence of RTI behind it, the freedom of the wild ass still rampages through social media and tributaries of the mainstream – perhaps prompting the powers that be to consider legislation to gild the lily… so here’s fair warning: let’s gird our loins for the coming grind – for no government (good, bad, or ugly) has the best interests of unbound facts and unfettered commentary at heart, at bottom 

– Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


In war, facts are often among the first casualties. In peace time, truth is.

During those dark days, bodies littering the streets of Colombo were par for the course – whether dead editors once bloodied but unbowed. Or badly beaten investigative journalists bruised for their brutal exposés. Because despotism knows no mercy towards its detractors. 

Today the only corpses in sight are those lining the bullpen – critics and social commentators who have fallen asleep at their desks, lulled by a democracy that offers peace but pre-empts justice. Oscar Wilde, had he been around, might have re-essayed his aphorism that “in those days, newspapers were edited by somebodies and read by everyone; today editorials are written by nobodies and read by no one”. 

Media freedom is showing some life signs. Or so you will argue. To which I might reply that the vitals are faint. And the pulse of penetrating insights and critical engagement is rapidly fading. 

The ‘economic assassins’ of this milieu are focussing on fiscal, fiduciary, and financial fiascos to the exclusion of social justice in the peace, national reconciliation, and transitional justice spheres. The ‘political pundits’ of the world are missing in action, where once they called out the champions of Good Governance when they erred on the side of caution or (dare I say it, even if they will never essay it) corruption.

“What is the truth?” asked Pontius Pilate – and would not wait for an answer. Many journalists have struggled with this… especially if they speak truth to power. Or even simply the truth. May I supply two recent exemplars of this syndrome: whereby even the best lack all conviction!

Example No. 1:

Writing for an anniversary issue of an erstwhile leading rag, an alumnus of a once much-awaited newspaper wrote, inter alia: “The Leader’s survival also reflects the darker side of the publishing-politics nexus, with its ownership having changed hands many times, and its motives or objectives sometimes under a cloud. There has been a sea-change from ‘it’s in the Leader – it must be true…’ – to something rich and strange: ‘it’s in the Leader – it can’t be true…’”

This set the cat among the pigeons. The rag in question was neither willing nor able to admit the truth about its once stellar but subsequently often chequered career. It importuned the writer to amend his stance, to water down the octane of the sentiments expressed. In the end, expediency prevailed. 

Since courtesy among old friends and common sense in the interests of being published at all prevailed, the eventual lamer version read: “The survival of editorial and advertising combines often reflects a darker side of the publishing-politics nexus. That the ownership of certain media houses change hands many times may bring its motives or objectives under a cloud. There might even be a sea-change from ‘it’s in the ’papers – it must be true…’ – to something rich and strange: ‘it’s in the ’papers – it can’t be true…’”

In an outcome not envisaged by the editors of the rag at that time, it subsequently transpired at the commission to investigate the infamous bond scam that the newspaper in question was shadow-owned by a minister who came under a cloud. 

That worthy – now singularly absent from the public eye – was not the first politico to have had a vested interest in what was published in the Leader’s pages. Those powerful agendas associated with the newspaper under scrutiny have ranged from presidential aspirants in the mid-1990s to ambitious prime ministers even now. Today the rag is non est, struggling to retain its readership and/or regain its credibility and past prestige.

I suspect you have xyz interjections to interpolate. You can interrupt me after I’ve finished (as the bishop said to the actress).

Example No. 2:

Penning his regular piece for a widely-read business, political, and financial journal, an eldritch writer fired this broadside. That the so-called ‘good governors’ of the coalition administration that assumed office in January and then again August 2015 had made nepotistic appointments of State ministers in strategic portfolios such as State defence. He named names and pointed fingers. But to publish such a direct statement would contravene or compromise the publication whose proprietors had close familial ties with the main party in Government. 

Perhaps more mindful of personal caution than pressing concerns, the editorial board of the prestigious newspaper persuaded the eccentric essayist to tone his tenor down to a more sombre timbre:

“Be the public sector as it may, the Govt. ranks are not exempt from such blatant favouritism. Or, to be fair by the politicos who feel that they are sometimes compelled to make such appointments, these are pragmatic choices. For even under Good Governance, the nobler type of politician around today could also have fingers pointed at them for presenting their kith and kin with key Cabinet or State portfolios. Such appointments to key and/or sensitive posts may be passed off as being the best among the worst of the options available.”

“This, of course, begs the question: whose interests such options and appointments serve? Because the relatively (no pun intended) young and/or inexperienced people who are appointed to such key/sensitive posts are sometimes simply scions of some influential family whose ambit spans empires, republics, polities, and who are closely related to the powers that be. There are skeletons in the closet of virtually every Administration since the 1972 Republican Constitution as regards this form of nepotism.”

“One would not be far wrong to interpret such appointments to strategic and sensitive ministries in the context of political and family ties… One might even admit the prevailing or perceived need to provide a bulwark for the party in power against its unlikely coalition with its former opposition. Party stalwarts might offer a sterling defence against charges of nepotism, citing the pragmatic nature of such appointments, overlooking the primary criterion of suitability or seniority. But the general public must be forgiven for seeing at least a smidgen of family influence in the provenance of such appointments.” 

“The fact and principle of the matter is that merely being a relative shouldn’t give anyone any clout with the powers that be. Allegedly nepotistic appointees may not themselves seek or receive any preferential treatment by virtue of being a part of a VVIP family. But if the rot that has been rife in the public sector is not to ruin Government’s reputation, Caesar must not only be above suspicion but be seen to be above such suspicion!”

“That the earth has moved in 2015 is not in doubt. But could it be that the axis of Sri Lankan politics has only shifted demonstrably: from one ‘dynastic democracy’ and culture of governance to another?”

Reds and blues

Maybe one must be happy about there being small mercies. A sense of proportion must prevail; for, after all:

  •     Comment is free today. Facts are sacred. And there seem to be no sacred cows…
  •     Fear of one’s life is a thing of the past… There’s plenty of time and space for dissent, engaging critically with the powers that be, etc.

Be that as it may, purists may quibble about such as these…

  •     Commentary has yet to effect the sea-change which democratic-republicanism envisaged, the media championed, the people waited years for and then gave up only to get back to biz as usual
  •     Few media houses have managed to throw off the shackles of other subtler forms of oppression which beset newspaper editorial desks (such as commercial, familial, vested interests) 

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.)

I am done now. So I’ll close up shop. Before someone makes me…

Perhaps you’ll permit me a Parthian shot before I bow out. If so, fish out pen or pencil and paper: 


(Answers using a red pencil automatically pass. Blue pencils are passé. Candidates who don’t attempt to be too smart about it will be considered to have passed the basic test of civil society being seen – out and about having fun while the media goes to hell in a handcart – and not heard.) 

A. Essays.

1.    The Free Media is a myth… define, explore, critically analyse – with reference to political ambition, publisher apathy, editorial empathy with big business, ad nauseam. Take care to ignore the ticking sounds under your chair – it may be just a clock, since the Fourth Estate more than any branch of putative government has been accused of alarmism. (Extra marks for ascertaining whether it is in fact an alarm clock. Or whether the media are the Fourth Estate at all or simply a Fifth Column of conspirators cobbled together by coalition and other governments to keep those in power in and those out if it out.) 

B. Short Answers.

1.Make a shortlist of civil administrations which have been free and fair by the media. (Don’t forget to remember Richard, et al.) 

2. Now pick the best of them. (Don’t remember to forget relative merits, and how ancient families own old media while nouveau riche arrivistes are planning future presidential campaigns where their blue-eyed parvenus can go to the top, viz. ‘Sirasa’.)


1. Who killed, brutally beat, made to disappear all/some/other of the following?





e.Do you know? Do you care?

2.    Has good solid investigative journalism…

a.Gone underground

b.Gone bonkers

c.Gone ‘down under’

d.Gone to pieces

3.Will social media overtake and replace media in one of many ways?



c.Yes and no

d.In the same way that video killed the 

radio star

4. Who killed, brutally beat… oh, wait… that’s a repeat – so:

a.Give yourself full marks, anyway. (Go ahead, you deserve it.)

b.Give this Government a hard time for not giving that Government a harder time over the egregious abuses of media and other societal freedoms. (Go ahead, they deserve it. You deserve the governments you get.)

c.The journalists concerned deserved it. (No one deserves that, buddy.)

d.We the people (not the Fourth Estate nor even a Fifth Column but a sixth segment of society lacking common leave alone a savvy sixth sense) failed the test of being discerning about the just desserts of failing to recognise that media is and has always been the plaything of politicians, bankers, wankers, et al. (Pardon your French, this is not a Foul Language paper.)

5.What would you think of giving an F for civil society’s idea of Media Freedom?

a.F, just as it says, or F+

b.Foul, just as it suggests

c.Fine, just as you feel

d.Fail, just as we 

all deserve 

There is only one thing worse than questions with no answers. And that is answers with no meaning. Feel free to disagree with me and earn the F that we as a civil society have earned. 

(A senior journalist, the writer was once the Chief Sub Editor of The Sunday Leader, 1994-8, and is ex-LMD, having been its Editor, 2004-8. He has made a career out of asking questions, and not waiting for answers.)

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