SRI LANKA: Military and the Mess Up in Media Relations

 

by Col R Hariharan (retd.)

“The Sirasa TV crew who went to cover the opening of the second flyover in Kelaniya met with hostility from the bodyguards of Minister Mervyn Silva. An eye witness at the scene claimed that the minister had inquired whether a Sirasa TV crew was present and upon identification had ordered his guards to forcibly remove the video tapes from the camera.” – News item in a Colombo daily August 5, 2008.

The above news item is the latest episode in the Sri Lanka Government’s mess up of media relations during the last two years. Government representatives have generally been defensive if not out rightly hostile in responding to media’s quest for information. Most of the media criticism relate to issues of governance – corruption, nepotism, misuse of office, violation of human rights, use of violence and intimidation against dissent etc. Only a few relate to the armed forces and conduct of military operations. Normally, these issues would be discussed in parliament.  But that avenue had not been effective as the government appears to have increasingly adopted “direct action” as the method to handle criticism. Media representatives writing critically of the government in particular have been victims of violent attacks, intimidation, threats and calumny.

The regime’s attitude towards media freedom has drawn a lot of unsavoury international criticism. It is no consolation to scribes that similar trends have been noticed now and then in other countries of South Asia as well.

The successful operations of security forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have contributed to the continuing popularity of President Mahinda Rajapaksa among the masses. The security forces, particularly the army, unlike any other arm of the
government have been paying a high price for their success. Despite this,      the security forces had drawn some flack in defence columns of a few newspapers not only on the conduct of operations but also on issues of nepotism, corruption, and misinformation.

This has not gone well with the security forces as seen in Sri Lanka Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka’s recent interview to a Colombo Sunday newspaper. Here are some excerpts from this candid interview particularly on media and media freedom:

Question: What is the role you expect the media to play during the time of war? Answer: War or no war, the media should write in the interest of the country and not to please their favourites. The media is supposed to play a neutral role to educate people. They are not supposed to create situations where they groom people and make heroes out of them. I do not think that certain media in this country is doing their duty with a sense of responsibility.

We know that they are being bribed, given ‘drinks,’ treated in restaurants and they have their own vested interests. And is it ethical them to go for agendas misleading people?
These so called media guys are not responsible to the people and they are not entitled to such media freedom. Media freedom is there for you to do the right thing and to be fair by everybody. Nobody has given freedom for anybody to drive their own agendas. We know very well about those media people who take bribes, write and voice their opinion for some personal gains… … … So, especially the media people should behave well and set an example to others. To me, those who stage protests with unshaven beards, long hairs and wearing costumes like in fancy dress competitions are not scribes who are clamouring for media freedom but a gang of thugs.

The General’s outburst is symptomatic of how armies generally react to media criticism. This state of affairs is not only in Sri Lanka, but in most of the other countries in a similar situation. His views will strike a sympathetic chord among many of his counterparts in other countries, though they might not air them in public. This is because governments and armed forces have not yet come to terms with the 21st century phenomenon of citizen’s right to information.

Basically, both the military and media represent committed people who believe in their cause – the armies assume they are custodians of national security, while the media feel they are the guardians of freedom of expression. There is an element of truth in both claims. When both of them interact, inherent contradiction in their coexistence comes to the fore. This has to do with their mindsets. I can claim to have some insights into their mindsets because I have worked both as a journalist and a career military officer by choice.

The uniformed forces, particularly the army, have a macho image of themselves. This comes due to their leadership, training, discipline, and organized way of doing things known popularly as regimentation. On the other hand, media lacks uniformity; to them discipline relates only to deadlines or catching live news. If the military prides itself in smart turnout, many members of the media have a studied shabbiness about them. (I think Gen Fonseka was not far off the mark on this. I have always wondered why media persons cannot groom themselves better!).

Unlike military men, media operators belong to the freewheeling, iconoclastic, and often abrasive, collection of many kinds who would rather question than accept what is told to them. If secrecy and security are watchwords of military, scoops and sting operations are
the tools of trade of media. Armed forces have a great faith in the use of force to settle issues, just as the media puts its faith in their own words of wisdom and world view. The army men do not hesitate to use fisticuffs, and the media are not averse to use the poison pen.

To top it all, both the military and media are treated as holy cows of society. Both are patronised by politicians and political parties to articulate power in different ways. So they do not have the resilience to weather criticism unlike the thick skinned political class. Wars are power projections of the rulers and so both the armed forces and the media become part of political polemics between the ruling and the opposition parties. Politicians always use the success and failures of the conduct of war as a stick to drum up support or opposition to the regime in power. And the media comes in handy for such campaigns.

If the military is frozen in the 20th century mindset of inherent righteousness of their actions, the media riding the 21st century war of TRP rating and circulation sensationalise any news item including military matters. In this setting, when media critically reports military operations, the military men feel the media is judgemental, disregarding the ordeal of fire undergone by the soldiers. It is true that generally the media’s level of military knowledge is low, just as the military’s knowledge of media is poor. So when media carries a half baked report, the military suspects the intention behind it.

The accountability of the media is to the public and not to the government. Thus it is qualitatively different from the accountability of the armed forces. So the armed forces cannot expect the media to be more accountable than the ordinary citizen who wants to know what is happening at the war front. This is the harsh truth of modern media.

In counter insurgency wars every soldier or militant killed or wounded affects the lives of scores of others not involved in the war. So whatever is the result of military operation, some section of the population or media will blame the armed forces. The armed forces have to understand this and adapt their style to provide more information.

The armed forces have no choice but to enlist the support of media as a change agent for influencing public opinion in counter insurgency war. Military has to learn to handle media criticism. Generally the security forces’ complaints about media fall under three categories – misinformation, lack of accountability, and compromise of security.
These can be overcome by having a media friendly style.  Facilitating information gathering, rather than providing canned information bytes, and providing knowledge inputs produces a friendlier media. Building a media friendly attitude among forces during peace times will pay better dividends in times of war.

Greater transparency on issues of military administration not only builds public credibility but also tones up discipline of armed forces and improves their morale. And that should be the ultimate aim of armed forces – to build a better force regardless of what media feels.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:colhari@yahoo.com)

 

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