We hear with some interest the recent argument of the Prime Minister that the free media has a fair share of the blame to bear for the spread of anti-republican “scare-tactic type” rumours. Speaking on the occasion of a day to commemorate press freedom, it was intimated only ruling party politicians these days are championing that worthy cause. The media more or less en masse were selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.
Under a previous dispensation, the gagged press was responsible for the proliferation of an almost endemic ethnic chauvinism; burgeoning and often out of control race hate; and growing religious intolerance. Now it is the turn of the newly liberated e- and free- and social media under the rule of persons entirely great (or, bathetically, good).
If we understand our Premier right, there would be none of the above – even now, especially now – if the media did not report it, and/or dwell on it lovingly, like some wild ass on an altogether irresistible carrot. It is his contention (as reported in the free media, ironically enough) that certain papers among other news outlets are responsible for the accidental proliferation, if not the active promulgation, of much that ails us in our nation-state today: gossip, and fear- and rumour-mongering.
This is his erudite surmise. (Not that even the greenest of sea-green incorruptibles don’t feel the wild ass kicking against the pricks!) And/but he may be right in some perverse way about the role of media in encouraging the worst kind of ‘news’ to be disseminated, like some wayward dirty old men in parliament sowing their wild oats… Speaking of which, perhaps our elder statesman or statesmen could and should be more concerned about the type of political thug or ruling hooligan in the House today.
Would any self-respecting politico dare to censure – even censor – the acts of and subsequent reportage on – these parliamentary wild asses who seek (and get) their fifteen seconds of infamy? Only recently – and not for the first time in our legislature’s chequered history, but for the umpteenth – they were there: in full view of a gallery full of schoolchildren, revelling in their sordid spot in the glare of the camera-lights. Of course, one knows that even without the loving lingering glance of the lens or the foreshortened foreplay of pen and ink, the plug-ugly lovelies who run the House into the ground will run riot and have their play, anyway.
So today, four days after the UN General Assembly-designated World Press Freedom Day, we take the opportunity – taking a leaf from the PM’s books – to critically engage with and challenge our dwindling tribe of fellow scribes who claim membership in the portals of the Fourth Estate.
The fact remains that many members of the Free Media are taking for granted the once implied and now much more explicit freedom of the media to practise their trade and their tricks. This technical gallimaufry is now being plied to such an extent that one of the most wasteful uses of our brain power and other national assets is not being noticed for what it really is. We mean, of course, the inexplicable attitude of both sycophantic as well as sociopathic media towards succoured and suckered politicians! Who, despite their censoring or censuring, still continue to make the headlines in 72-point boldness! What, you may ask, is the ongoing fatal attraction? Which, some might wonder, are the very abuses one has in mind?
For one, the thought-leaders among ‘the free press’ online (and via the safety and anonymity of proxy servers, also under cover of web-side liberties) are now, maybe more than ever, given to going the whole hog. These usually run to supposed and rather selective exposés that have civic-minded, politically well-balanced members of the public scratching their heads and all. We think it may be true! We hope it isn’t? We suspect there’s a vested interest somewhere. We don’t know what it all means in the end…
Then, there are the ‘atheists’ or the ‘agnostics’ – who would prefer not to give even the ex-‘devil’ his due, believing as they do that there is no such thing as bad publicity. They, therefore, ignore even the genuinely commendable actions of the politicians whom we all love to hate or hate to love.
But most importantly, by and large, are the common or garden publishing rags, mags, media houses – and now, blogs – who use political life in our blessed isle as cannon-fodder for yellow journalism. This output is used to feed the masses their daily dose of opinion, propaganda, and mindless reflection of what equally unmindful politicians do, say, feel, think, or otherwise communicate.
There are two equal and opposite dangers into which the media in Sri Lanka have walked with their eyes – and the eyes of their respective readerships and viewerships – shut. One is to have an excessive interest in political goings-on; the other is to ignore its existence altogether. Most of our elected representatives are equally pleased with sycophants and sceptics alike. They’d welcome both idiots and ignoramuses, with open arms. All they are interested in is publicity, if it will do them any good… and no media coverage at all, if it will expose their true nature.
Now, perhaps, more than at any other time in the political history of the island, politicians are dominating the free media. It is the price the freed media pay as homage or honour to their ostensible liberators. The pity of the matter is that, with a few exceptions, what our blessed or benighted leaders have to say is not worth the newsprint or airtime. The exceptions are so rare that they go virtually unnoticed by virtue of being relegated to the back pages or non-prime-time slots.
Consider this. When was the last time you, gentle reader, were sincerely edified, enthused, or empowered by reading about a politician in your favourite newspaper – or any newspaper? Come on – be honest, now, faithful citizen! We are willing to wager that joy, love, grace, or goodwill are hardly the emotions that dominate when our politicos make the headlines. Right?
To be fair, the doings and sayings of (say) the head of state, or a speaker of the house while presiding over that august (ahem) assembly, or that ministering angel (no saint he) to whom nothing is foreign should be of (at least academic) interest. The content of the political-news media in the best of democracies is chiefly composed of such pleasant trivialities.
But what good does it do when our news today mainly comprises the arrogant or inane actions and stupefying or simply stupid sayings of a certain clan or ilk by the highly debate nomenclature of ‘joint opposition’? Are the powers that be and want to continue to be any better? The latter’s jejune utterances, the former’s ignorant assertions! Their cupidity, their criminality, their corruption? It is astute of the Prime Minister – and, in similar vein, not entirely asinine of the President – to lament that the media have been reborn free, but everywhere in chains? And some seemingly desiring to creep or crawl up back along the birth canal to the womb of darkness from which they were lately, not lightly, sprung?
Despite its obvious biases – be they political, social, cultural, linguistic, or economic – the media is still taken very seriously in this country. Especially in the so-called vernacular or national languages. People believe what they read and are influenced by what they see and hear. Let it be reflected upon for a quiet moment or two what irreparable damage is being done to the national psyche by continually exposing it to the calibre of thought, capacity for action, and charity of spirit as is possessed by the ego-inflated, power-bloated, blatantly self-serving politicians as do strut their petty hour on this poor stage that passes for a now full blown republic of ours…
Of course, one must balance this antipathy to broadcasting with what is rotten about the state of the nation by asserting the right of the public to information. In this day and age, when all the hallowed institutions that are beloved of traditional democracies are being attacked and eroded with impunity by stubborn hangers on from former regimes, the last bastion of a barely free state may be an independent media that is not afraid to publish (the truth, we hasten to add) or be damned. Or be published and be damned.
Is the media really free? Is it significant, is it meaningful? Let it stop lionising and demonising politicians! Even the ones who make news… Especially the ones who make the headlines for the wrong reasons. As in the House earlier this week or an army camp some time back. We don’t care… and we don’t want to know, anymore! The public are not fooled all the time.
The irony is, the Right to Information laws now in vogue have become something of a double-edged sword. They have far to go before they become useful to professional media houses and a citizenry genuinely engaged with good governance alike. But while RTI is de rigueur, it seems to be adding to the ‘anything goes’ zeitgeist with the dictum that anything’s fair game to be published: alleged terrorism-resurgence, grim CCTV footage, allegations of ethnically loaded rabble-rousing, would-be-resurrected ex-despot’s security details, pandemonium in parliament.
Enough speculation! The FM must prove the PM wrong. Right to information out, responsibility in?