(Text of an Editorial Appearing in “The Island” of December 7th 2017 Under the Heading “Scribes drowning in crocodile tears”)
No sooner had Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe raked newspaper editors over the coals, the other day, for their absence at a UN-organised press freedom event than Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera followed suit. Echoing the PM, who asked whether editors were not interested in media freedom, Samaraweera said, at a different event, that invitations had been sent to all editors and he was disappointed that the front-row seats at the UN-sponsored function had been left empty by no-shows.
It looks as if politicians were more interested in media freedom than journalists.
Let the Media Minister be told that it is wrong for a bad preacher to condemn parishioners as nonbelievers when he finds pews empty during one of his sermons. President Maithripala Sirisena did not attend court on Monday in spite of being noticed; he went to Parliament instead. His absence in court did not mean he did not believe in the judicial process. He had his priorities. The same goes for newspaper editors and their counterparts in the electronic media.
Minister Samaraweera said something to the effect that democracy gained when the media and politicians clashed. That may be true, but, in this country, journalists who take on governments place themselves in harm’s way. One may recall that it was under the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government, of which Samaraweera was the Media Minister, Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and his first wife were roughed up by goons and their house was sprayed with bullets. Editor of the Satana tabloid Rohana Kumara was gunned down.
Journalists were attacked and killed under UNP governments as well. The Premadasa government stooped so low as to vilify Richard de Zoysa posthumously in Parliament having had him abducted and killed. In 1992, a high ranking police officer declared that the Fort Police Station had been closed for the day when journalists went there to lodge a complaint against a goon attack on them near the Fort Railway Station. Pro-UNP goons beat legendary Atta cartoonist Yunus and cut his mouth with a knife. (Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who is campaigning for media freedom at present, was a minister of the Premadasa regime.) Under the UNP-led UNF government (2001-2004) two of our journalists had to go into hiding owing to a witch hunt against them over an article they had written.
The less said about the Rajapaksa government the better. The Rajapaksa rule saw a spate of brutal attacks on journalists and media institutions. Printing facilities of news papers and television studios were burnt down. Current (President Maithripala Sirisena was in the Rajapaksa Cabinet then!) Several prominent journalists including Lasantha were brutally murdered. Adding insult to injury President Rajapaksa appointed Mervyn Silva, responsible for many incidents of violence against media institutions and journalists, his Media Minister! Thankfully, that decision was reversed owing to media pressure. Now, Rajapaksa is weeping buckets for journalists!
While the media were being attacked under the Rajapaksa government, the then Chief Opposition Whip and UNP MP Joseph Michael Perera, making a special statement on behalf of the UNP, in Parliament in July 2008, held the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka responsible for attacks on journalists. A BBC report said on July 28, 2008:
“Opposition MP Joseph Michael Perera, told parliament that the attacks were carried out by a ‘special team’ controlled by Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.
Mr. Perera said the government should arrest the offenders and ‘immediately bring them to justice’…
“We are told by those in the army itself that journalists are abducted and subjected to grievous injury by none other than a special unit under the army commander,” Mr. Perera, a former parliamentary speaker, said.’
Lasantha was assassinated a few months later in January 2009.
Having levelled that serious allegations against Fonseka, the UNP threw its weight behind him in the 2010 presidential race! In 2015, the UNP brought him to Parliament via the National List, following his defeat at the last general election, and made him a Cabinet Minister after elevating him to the rank of Field Marshal.
All UNP leaders who shed copious tears for journalists have chosen to remain silent on the very serious allegation they made against Fonseka and his team. They must explain why arrests have not been made in keeping with their call in Parliament in 2008.
Under the present yahapalana government, a Navy Commander who manhandled a journalist at the Hambantota Port went scot free. Worse, he was given an extension in service, promoted to the rank of Admiral and made the Chief of Defence Staff! Later, a high ranking police officer slapped a journalist who was being held by two constables. He should have been arrested, but nothing of the sort happened. He, too, may get a service extention and a promotion.
The foregoing may explain why we don’t want to be lectured by politicians on media freedom. We rest our case.