Many years ago, when the boot was on another foot, Aththa (truth or pravda), the Sri Lanka Communist Party´s daily newspaper, railed at the press censorship imposed by the United National Party (UNP) government of the time by carrying vast blank spaces across its pages. Inside each white space was a one-line notice to readers: ‘This news was eaten by dogs.’
While this drama was being played, Parliament was buzzing one day with the rumour that a devaluation of the rupee was imminent. Pieter Keuneman, a Communist MP who once wrote leaders for the Daily News, phoned the Aththa number and suggested the next day´s front page headline: ‘The rupee too has been eaten by dogs.’
Many moons have passed since those heady days. Mr Keuneman is no more a member of the house he adorned for 30 years with trenchant wit, Aththa is defunct, and the Communist Party is a partner in the ruling People´s Alliance (PA) government. However, the censor is very much in business at the Information Department. Although there is no reference to dogs, many newspapers continue to protest at the censorship with blank spaces scattered across their pages. Predictably, the censorship currently in force relates to military news. It has been imposed under the Emergency Regulations and has been implemented in a manner that has attracted a great deal of flak. For one thing, sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. With the Competent Authority responsible for the censorship compelled to delegate his functions to various officials, the media has been flinging examples of copy permitted to one paper by one official being denied to a second by another.
The government realised early on that subjecting the Colombo-based foreign media to the censorship would be a fruitless exercise. After a desultory foray in that direction, the restrictions are now confined to the local press. Gory pictures of battles on BBC World and CNN continue to be electronically tripped, but anybody with a shortwave radio can access the audio version of the same. Many Indian and other foreign newspapers carrying uncensored reports of the fighting in the north circulate, and capsules from the Reuter wire are available on the screens of those who buy the agency´s financial service.
Media, Tourism and Aviation Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake, who meets the press once a week, has gone public on several occasions expressing his personal view that the sooner the censorship is lifted the better. Leaders of the incumbent government who were once outspoken critics of press censorship of any kind are now confronted by the contradiction between what they practise and what they once preached. Some editors are now toying with the idea of defying censorship, thinking that perhaps it is better to be published and be damned.
Although there is unanimity that the ‘enemy’, in this case the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighting a separatist war for 13 years, must not be served a daily diet of classified information in the columns of newspapers, a way of working out a satisfactory solution has eluded the authorities. This, when there is willingness on the part of most media people to impose a fair degree of self-censorship upon themselves. When military debacles take place, such as that at Mullaitivu in the Northeast where over a thousand soldiers lost their lives in July, instincts of self-preservation inevitably take over.
Understandably, there are many in authority who would prefer the press not to dig into dustbins at times such as this. There is no doubt that newspapers have in the past published information useful to the Tigers. However, it is equally true that the censorship has provided protection to those in authority who must be held accountable for failures at different times. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the leader of the opposition in parliament, has with some justification alleged that press censorship was the government´s way of saving face in the wake of the Mullaitivu disaster.
Democracy demands that governments take the people into their confidence. Even the pro-government press has been saying as much in the course of the Mullaitivu post-mortem. Treading a cautious tightrope , the state-controlled Observer entitled a frontpage editorial, ‘A people informed are a people armed,’ and said it would be regrettable ‘if censorship becomes a wall between the government and the people.’ It would be even more regrettable if censorship becomes an instrument of convenience. It is only in a strong democracy that rulers avoid opportunism out of the certainty of their knowledge that the people will hold them accountable. While Sri Lanka prides itself as a vigorous South Asian democracy, its rulers are no less human than those who hold the reins elsewhere in this planet.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
On 1 December 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the US of cutting fuel supplies to Afghan security forces. Despite US pressure, Karzai continues to stall the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement.
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