The price of media freedom is death
The price of media freedom is death
Everyone's worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there's a really easy way. Stop participating in it. - Chomsky
By Dilrukshi Handunnetti-
The Sunday Leader
The year 2009 was doomed from the beginning. The shadows of 2008 in which the media practitioners of this country suffered immense hardships under the jackboots of the present day administration and its military apparatus cast its ugly dark shadow on this year as well.
Just on to the 8th day of the new year, Sri Lanka scored a dubious first. The internationally renowned editor of The Sunday Leader was gunned down in broad daylight. Needless to say what the plight of the average journalist of this country would be, as the reward for choosing a pen or a camera in this land of barbarians is now to have either the institution set on fire - or worse till, have a bullet pierce one's head.
The year 2008 dawned with the assassination of a minority parliamentarian, T. Maheswaran on January 1. This year dawned with an act of vandalism that destroyed the Main Control Room (MCR) and the MBC/MTV station complex in Pannipitiya setting the trend.
It was followed by the assassination of The Sunday Leader Founder Editor and Director Editorial, Lasantha Wickrematunge.
The parallels are ugly. And the words that emanate from government quarters appear uglier. For example, in his address to the nation on Friday, President Mahinda Rajapakse declared not just the capture of Elephant Pass yet again, but he also had the audacity to state that there was a conspiracy behind the recent media attacks to discredit the government with pledges to reveal all soon.
An unbiased Sri Lankan would surely know that such a day would never dawn and all these barbaric acts of violence and mayhem would remain unresolved crimes. There need not be any doubt as to why Sri Lanka was rated the fifth deadliest place for journalists to live in just last January. Wickrematunge's assassination is proof enough of this factor.
Elsewhere in this newspaper, the chronology of events to highlight the number of occasions when Leader Publications Pvt Ltd, its editor and journalists have come under severe threat have been listed.
In 2008, there had been frivolous litigation, threats and intimidation. It is an understatement to declare that if any single organisation and its head had come under repeated attacks, it was no other but Leader Publications.
As Sri Lanka continued to slide in every international index on media status, in October 2008, Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) stated that Asia had the biggest representation in the 10 countries at the boomeranging. Most of them were described as dictatorships, but they also included - please note - for the first time, Sri Lanka (165). That's an awful record when the list includes only 173 nations.
Issuing a statement of International Press Freedom Mission to Sri Lanka in late October, five international media organisations expressed shock that Sri Lanka has indeed fallen to the lowest ever press freedom rating that year.
It recorded the alarming trend of using anti terror laws for the first time in the democratic world, to punish journalists purely for what they have written in the case of J. Tissainayagam and others. They have been in custody for over 300 days now.
The mission also recorded how the media in the northeast were threatened by all parties to the conflict in an effort to curtail independent and critical reporting. The mission condemned the murder of P. Devakumar in Jaffna last May as well as over a dozen other murders documented since 2005.
It noted that the LTTE controlled areas lacked freedom of expression and freedom of movement preventing diverse opinions and access to plural sources of information.
The mission took strong exception to the gazetting of rules in October listing out contingencies under which broadcasting licenses could be cancelled, including seven different grounds relating to broadcast content.
Significantly, it noted with shock elected representatives and government ministers using violent and inflammatory language against media workers and institutions. It noted further the Defence Ministry website contributing to the vilification of independent media and journalists.
It is in this backdrop that 2009 dawned, on a completely negative note. Beginning with the MTV/MBC station attack, the culmination was the assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, described onetime by a racial website as one of many 'traitors,' or "Jathiye Drohiyo."
Post Wickrematunge, already the fear psychosis has set in. Shutting down its website Friday, Lankadissent.com editorial panel posted the following:
"In this land of the most compassionate Lord Buddha...
Sinhala Buddhists who believe this land belongs to the most compassionate Lord Buddha and constitutionally calls it the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, sing with pride 'In wisdom and strength renewed / Ill-will, hatred, strife all ended / In love enfolded, a mighty nation / Marching onward, all as one / Lead us, Mother, to fullest freedom' as their National Anthem.
And... in this compassionate, democratic Buddhist land enfolded with love, in wisdom and fullest freedom, media is forbidden to raise a dissenting voice. Media is forbidden to criticize the 'law' of the ruling regime. The media is forbidden to speak for the people.
Many who thought they as the media have a right to freedom of expression, they have a right to information, that the people also have the same right and that it is a fundamental right in a modern civilised society, have been told very bluntly and at times most brutally, that it isn't so in this land of the compassionate, democratic republic, run by a 'patriotic' regime.
The Tamil media in the north were the first to have been told this bluntly and ruthlessly while the Colombo media did not want those dissenting voices in the north, heard elsewhere. They had to learn that lesson, first hand.
And..that was a lesson learnt by some, who are not with us to tell their story. That is a lesson learnt by some, who don't have the right to say it, because they have a right to live some time more. For a lot, it was their station Sirasa that went ablaze with that lesson. It was their station that was smashed and set on fire to teach a lesson.
For Lasantha Wickrematunge, an editor with a passion for uncompromising media professionalism, it was a challenge to face. A challenge he never minced words, in meeting. He had his own aggressive style in meeting the challenge. Admired and respected but left alone without political backing.
And... he, therefore, could not surmount this challenge, all by himself.
A lesson learnt, that needs no repeats to learn. This compassionate Sinhala Buddhist land does not tolerate 'dissent.' Those who would not want to learn that living, would have to learn that in death. We who live, would come back when 'dissent' comes back as a democratic right, accepted and enjoyed in a modern land of compassion.
Till then, good bye!"
And so begins 2009 on a note of fear and intimidation. It is a year in which more journalists are doomed to smell their own blood. One in which Sri Lanka would slide further in the international ranking and a worse report card is likely to emerge..