The state media and freedom of expression

ST Online

Sunday March 30, 2008

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

If EEC Abeysekera, that quietly unflagging champion of the broadbasing of Lake House was alive today, he would surely have rejoiced at the (somewhat peculiar) fact of the Lake House Employees’ Union (LHEU) invoking the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court this week asking for the implementation of the ‘Lake House Provisions Act.’ Rather quaintly, the petition (as reported in the website, ‘Lanka Dissent’) is aimed at ‘stopping politicians from intimidating the staff and ensuring the independence of the institution.’

Whatever may be the motives behind the reported filing of this petition (and I am not privy to any details that may shed light on that score either), some details as disclosed in this news report, do strike at the very heart of the issue. Thus, the LHEU alleges (a la Rupavahini vis a vis the repulsively rumbustious ‘Dr’ Mervin de Silva) that the bulk of the Lake House turnover, amounting to nearly Rs. 03 billion has been (and is being) used to further the activities of politicians. Spokesmen of the LHEU name the culprits refreshingly, as not only politicians of previous regimes but the present government as well. The amount that the government owes the institution for a single election campaign exceeds Rs. 40 million. Nearly 2,500 of the 3,000 strong staff are political appointments. It is also a grouse of the LHEU that successive governments have changed job responsibilities as well as recruitments and dismissals to suit their needs.

Financial wastage in state media

These details of the financial wastage involved brings to my mind, similar disclosures some years back when the United National Front (UNF) administration of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s succeeded Chandrika Kumaratunge’s People Alliance (PA) government in the general elections of December 2001 with however Kumaratunge remaining as President. In the famously misnamed ‘cohabitation’ period that followed, brief as it was, one tug of war was in the arena of the state media. The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and the Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) argued over who should carry the bill of Rs 2.8 million owing to Rupavahini from SLT for the live satellite broadcast by President Chandrika Kumaratunge on Rupavahini during the elections. Both institutions, in the control of the UNF by that time, refused to carry the tab on the basis that the speech was political and propagandist in nature. Similarly, Lake House sued the SLFP (the major constituent partner of the PA) for the recovery of Rs 43.4 million as unpaid bills for print of propaganda material for the SLFP while in government.

The sapping of the financial energies of the state media institutions is, of course, a well established fact. No government has ever done anything constructive to remedy this deplorable situation. For all its efforts to bring about media law reform in regard to Freedom of Information and Contempt of Court, the UNF government also did nothing to broadbase Lake House. The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited Special Provisions Law No 28 of 1973 (as amended) specifically mandated (Section 5) that broadbasing the ownership of ANCL was to take place by the gradual selling of shares to the public. This had been ignored for more than thirty years. In mid 1995, a committee appointed by the PA government recommended that Lake House shares be re-distributed in a manner that would ensure the creation of a broadbased democratic newspaper company with the widest possible citizens’ participation. The committee observed that this was, in fact, an election promise in the manifestoes of major political parties, subject to the condition that no single person or group will be able to own more than a quarter of the shares so re distributed. These recommendations were also not implemented.

Greater intimidation of the state media

It is in this context that the petition reportedly filed by the Lake House trade unionists becomes interesting, just as much as the Rupavahini workers rebelled against a thuggish minister. Would this suffice to compel government ministers to take notice of the blatant abuse of state media resources to suit party political ends? Or would this, on the contrary, result in greater intimidation of state media personnel who exhibit a contrary opinion to that of their political masters? The shameful example of the trials and tribulations that befell the protesting Rupavahini workers is a case in point. While one after the other was attacked, slashed and assaulted, the Minister in question continued to perform in office and indeed, accompanied President Mahinda Rajapakse in all his disreputable glory at a public function recently. The patronage that he continues to receive from the office of the Executive Presidency far exceeds what others of his ilk received from other past Presidents. At least in none of the past instances, was the patronage so blatantly and shamelessly given; in any event, underworld thugs were just that and not elevated to ministerial rank.

Freedom of Expression in Sri Lanka

There are those of us who revel in pointing to critical columns and news reports to illustrate that there is media freedom in Sri Lanka. The contrary is however, actually the case. As long as the targeting of particular journalists and media personnel continues, as long as these individuals are threatened, intimidated and arrested on the flimsiest pretext, the presence of a few critical voices will not suffice to detract from the fact that this country lacks the crucial characteristic of democratic dissent. The mere fact that no censorship regulations are formally in force will prove little as long as defence correspondents are vilified, abused and threatened.

And the convenient pretext of the war cannot serve to cover reporting of issues that expose corruption and abuse of power by politicians. Whichever way one looks, what we have is a good facade of a functioning democracy; whether it is the continued non-implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, the abuse of the state media, the arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists or the supposed full securing of rights and freedoms.