Another nail in the coffin: The open militarisation of State owned media in Sri Lanka

21st March 2008, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Free Media Movement (FMM) is outraged that the government has appointed retired Army Major General Sunil Silva as Additional Director General (Administration) of the State controlled TV station Sri Lanka Rupavahini Cooperation (SLRC).  Major General Sunil Silva retired in January 2008.

This appointment beggars belief, especially less than 48 hours after a key meeting with the President of Sri Lanka and SLRC Trade Union leaders and journalists on the spate of brutal physical attacks against colleagues who stood up against the brutish intrusion by Government MP Mervyn Silva into its premises late last year. No one at this meeting was consulted about or told of this appointment.

Though retired, the appointment of ex-military personnel to a key post in the SLRC is particularly revealing. The militarisation of State apparatus under this regime is not new, but this is the first time it has extended to the media. Not only does this set an extremely disturbing precedent, it irrevocably vitiates the independence of State media from regressive party political patronage, influence and coercion.

The FMM vehemently protests this appointment on a point of principle. We have nothing against Major General Sunil Silva. We are deeply concerned that the office of a civilian is now in the hands of someone from whom independence and impartiality is simply too much to ask or expect. This is a damning indictment of the President’s bona fides to support and strengthen media freedom and a chilling indicator of the regime’s duplicitous nature.

We believe that this appointment was made in the context of SLRC journalist unions threatening trade union action if the government did not take action to hold the deranged Government MP Mervyn Silva accountable for his actions in a court of law. Given that on the 17th of this month military and police cordoned off SLRC premises to prevent any trade union action we are in no doubt that this military appointment is directly linked to the emerging crisis situation within SLRC and intended to intimidate the institution’s journalists and other staff.

We demand that this appointment is immediately rescinded. The media community represented by our organisations will accept no alternative and will not negotiate on this matter. It is simply a point of principle – the militarisation of media institutions is tantamount to the curtailment of media rights. The President had, at the conclusion of the recent meeting with journalists, promised to look into the unprecedented intimidation of media personnel in Sri Lanka.

Sadly, this appointment is grossly incompatible with that promise.