Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz
Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz

Freeing the fourth estate

In post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka there is less restriction on the media.

July 2012: Frederica Jansz, the editor of the Sunday Leader, called Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, about a dog. Jansz had heard that Rajapaksa, the powerful younger brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had ordered the bumping off of passengers from a flight to Sri Lanka, so that his chosen pilot could fly his chosen puppy home, from Zurich. Rajapaksa responded to Jansz's probing questions with profanity and threats. In less than three months, the Sunday Leader had been purchased by a Rajapaksa cipher and Jansz was out of her job. Fearful for her life, she fled the country with her two young sons.

January 2016: Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking in parliament, was wildly critical of Chatura Alwis, a popular TV presenter of the privately owned TV Derana. Wickremesinghe called Alwis names and accused him of spreading racism. Alwis is still living in Sri Lanka, still at his job, still critical of the government.

The two incidents illustrate the long distance travelled by Sri Lanka in a short time.

Two years ago Sri Lanka was one of the least free lands in Southasia; today it is one of the nations where most are able to express themselves. The transition is especially remarkable because it bucks the Southasian trend towards lesser freedom. Across the Subcontinent, spaces are shrinking, for the media in particular and for dissenters, in general. This gradual hemming in of dissent is due to a growing intolerance unleashed by secular and religious authorities, states and societies. Himal's own fate is an obvious example, one amongst many, ranging from the verdict against Wendy Doniger's superlative tome The Hindus: An Alternative History in India, to the great tragedy of the serial murder of freethinking bloggers in Bangladesh.

In the World Press Freedom Index of 2015, Sri Lanka ranked 165 (out of 180 countries). In the same index in 2016, it ranked 141 – a substantial improvement in one short year. As the latest report of the International Federation of Journalists, 'The Road to Resilience – Press Freedom in South Asia', pointed out, "The situation in Sri Lanka marks a bright spot, though not unequivocally so."

Perfectly functioning democracies, like perfectly competitive markets, are a myth. What matters is the direction in which a society is moving. Sri Lanka is headed in the direction of more openness and freedom, even though it's a bumpy journey. How long this forward motion will continue is uncertain. How rooted and lasting the resultant changes are, only time can tell. But for now, Sri Lanka is a safer, more accommodating place for dissenting voices than many of her Southasian or even Asian peers.

Articles on Freedom of Expression
This article is from our final issue 'Fact and Fiction'. The quarterly issue has articles on freedom of expression and collection of fiction from the Southasia. Other articles on freedom of expression include: 

Of Eco and Echoes – Salil Tripathi

The business of news – Sukumar Muralidharan

Whose media is it anyway? – Neha Dixit

The state of surveillance – Sana Saleem

Web of Control – Sarah Eleazar

Chronicle of a death not foretold – Aunohita Mojumdar

Since January 2015, no media person has been killed, arrested or forced into voluntary exile in Sri Lanka, a country where such happenings were the norm not so long ago. There was one attack, on Freddie Gamage, the editor of a regional paper Meepura. Two suspects were arrested and remanded. Politicians, especially those in power, still heap vitriol on media personnel, but the fear psychosis has gone. Justice has not been done to the murdered, the disappeared and the assaulted of the past, but a few of the older cases are being investigated.

The habit of self-censorship, a necessary survival mechanism in difficult times, has vanished. Lankan media has gone back to its habitual critical and irreverent mode. The sense of freedom has also encouraged the emergence of new – mostly young – writers.

The passage of the long awaited and much delayed Right to Information Act in June 2016 marked an important milestone in this journey. The Act was an election promise of Maithripala Sirisena, but without persistent pressure from civil-society groups it may not have seen the light of day. The Act received unanimous approval in Parliament and is now part of the law of the land. It gives citizens the right to request information from the government and all affiliated organisations, except on certain sensitive issues such as national defence, trade secrets, and medical records. The main provisions of the Act include the setting up of a Right to Information Commission which will monitor the implementation of the Act.

Enacting laws and building institutions are necessary, but for progress to last, a less indifferent and more involved citizens is indispensable. Only such involvement can ensure that politicians, in their generic antipathy to openness and timeless fear of criticism, do not bypass laws and enervate institutions.

Battling impunity

In March 2016, two security guards at Colombo's Independence Square chased away a young couple. When the couple wanted to know their crime, the guards politely informed them that official policy allowed only married couples with children to be in the Square. While the young woman argued with the guards, her partner recorded the entire scene on his mobile phone and posted it on his Facebook page. A protest, organised via social media, was held at the Independence Square. Within days the two security guards were transferred and the security director (a Rajapaksa political appointee) removed from his job.

Similar acts of moral policing had been happening for years, but this was the first time the victims had dared to resist. Since January 2015, an outburst of opposition can be noticed in traditional and new avatars. There are more strikes and demonstrations. Some demonstrations still get tear-gassed and water-cannoned, but there is no fear that a white van will come for the activists in the night. The entry of new actors, both individuals and organisations, from outside the rubric of traditional political entities is a particularly promising sign. These new actors are involving themselves in a wide variety of issues, from such perennials problems like the cost of living to unique new demands, like the right to hold hands in public. This increase in public activism in between elections is a sign of good democratic health.

There is a pithy Sinhala saying of recent origin that can be loosely translated as, "When you have power you don't have brains; by the time you get brains you don't have power." The words reflect a reality that ordinary people experience every day. Power not only corrupts; it also addles minds, kills common sense and encourages deeds of self- destruction. Few politicians possess a notion of enlightened self-interest; even fewer can resist the urge to do things which are illegal, unethical or plain silly. The involvement of the broader public is essential to ensure that power-holders act within the confines of the law and rationality.

Take, for instance, an attempt by some aides of President Sirisena to commemorate the first anniversary of the defeat of the quasi-monarchical Rajapaksa project by creating a song and video which equates Sirisena to another bunch of ancient kings. Rajapaksa had been equated to Dutugemunu, a king from the Anuradhapura period who hailed from southern Lanka and is still revered for defeating the Tamil king Elara. Sirisena's political base is in Polonnaruwa where Parakramabahu, a king of the Polonnaruwa period, is regarded as ancient Lanka's most economically-savvy monarch. Since Sirisena starred in the music video, it presumably had his blessings. When the song was posted on YouTube, a storm of social-media protests ensued. The video was removed within hours and Sirisena's office denied any knowledge of the affair. The episode was nipped in the bud – because post-January 2015, Lankans are unafraid to talk and power-holders more inclined to listen, however unwillingly.

The shifting relationship between the rulers and the ruled was evident in the decline and fall of Arjuna Mahendran, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe's handpicked appointee as the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. In March 2015, he was accused of presiding over a shady bond issue which reportedly benefitted his son-in-law. Wickremesinghe defended Mahendran with vigour against a barrage of criticism from the media and opponents of the government, but to no avail. In face of unrelenting opposition, including from civil-society organisations, some of which played a prominent role in defeating the Rajapaksas, the government backed down. When Mahendran's tenure ended in mid-2016, it was not renewed.

Politicians may still want to ignore laws and norms and go their own way; but the atmosphere is no longer as enabling as it was for impunity and the abuse of authority. Sometimes, when the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration digs in its heels, a judiciary which has discovered its collective backbone intervenes.

This was most visible during the 'Value Added Tax' incident. Faced with a severe financial crisis, and possibly due to pressure from the IMF with which an agreement was signed weeks previously, the government increased VAT and re-imposed the Nation Building Tax in May 2016. And it did so without adhering to due processes. The resultant across-the-board price increase gave rise to a storm of protest, including by small traders (another Lankan first). A case was filed in the Supreme Court by the opposition. The Court suspended the tax hike, with a sharp rap on governmental knuckles: "In imposing these taxes, the government has not considered the constitution and the country's law. Whether it is good governance or any other governance, they should abide by the law when they rule the country." The prime minister criticised the ruling in Parliament, but said the government will abide by it. The tax hike was removed.

Sometimes, politicians themselves step in to prevent the officialdom from abusing power and closing the doors to free expression. The former women's leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) political wing, Thamilini (Subramaniam Sivathami), was arrested at the conclusion of the war and released in 2013. She was treated for cancer at the Cancer Institute and died there in October 2015. Her autobiography, In the Shadow of a Sharp Edged Sword, was published posthumously by her husband. But the Killinochchi police (in the Northern Province) refused to give permission for the book launch citing Thamilini's picture in LTTE uniform and the picture of the 'Tiger' flag on the book cover as the reason. There was even talk of the police consulting the Attorney General's Department to institute action against Thamilni's husband – presumably for being a terrorist. Before the farce could turn into a tragedy, Wickremesinghe intervened, ordering the police not to interfere with the book launch and reportedly asking, "The government is ours. Is the police Gota's? (Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence)." Since then a Sinhala translation of the book has been published, with a much publicised book launch in Colombo. As a report of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) concludes, this is a bright spot, albeit one with plenty of shadows, some of them cast not by the state but by society.


Kishani Jayasinghe, a Lankan soprano with an international presence, took part in the official cultural show to mark the Independence Day on 4 February 2016. Her repertoire included Danno Budunge, an enduringly popular song which has become iconic within Sinhala-Buddhist culture.

The following morning, the presenter of the TV programme Derana Aruna replayed Jayasinghe's operatic rendition of the song and launched into a rant against her. "Female cats sometimes make sounds like that in the night. What do we do then? We take a piece of brick and throw it in that direction… A warped version of the Danno Budunge song was sung at a ceremony to celebrate the National Independence Day. Opera or something, we don't know. Why are such things being done to valuable things? We don't know whether such things are done in expectation of bricks being thrown." The words, which sound far more incendiary in the original Sinhala, were not just critical, but also a call for violence to protect cultural purity. A fierce debate ensued. The TV channel first disavowed the remarks as the personal opinion of the presenter, then suspended him for a few weeks.

The incident illustrates an issue which is given insufficient weight in our region – societal threats to democratic rights and freedoms, the narrowing of spaces caused by religious and cultural intolerance. An environment where the media cannot criticise a religion or culture does not bode well for democracy.

In 2015, when Sri Lanka emerged from its authoritarian nightmare and began its journey towards democratisation, was also the year in which Sharmila Seyyid, social activist, poet and writer was hounded out of her motherland. Seyyid earned the virulent enmity of Islamic fundamentalists in Sri Lanka when she advocated legalising sex work in a discussion about one of her poems. The group published a morphed image of her being "raped and killed" on the internet. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration was uninterested in her plight as was the media. Seyyid's story was unknown outside the Eastern Province. Muslim politicians refused to take a stand and the police did nothing either to protect her or to investigate the threats against her. While spaces were opening up from North to South for dissent of every sort, the space for Seyyid got closed hermetically. She is now living in exile, a perfect example of the lethal role played by religion, culture and tradition in censoring free speech.

Such shadows notwithstanding, the general opening up of spaces is bringing into the public sphere many issues which were either ignored or considered taboo previously. For instance, there had been some – admittedly not very vocal or popular – demands that the new constitution being prepared be a secular one. Interestingly one of the first public figures to oppose a secular constitution was Colombo Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, another indication of the role played by religion in keeping societies bound to the past.

A previously taboo subject which is being raised as part of the constitution-making process is equal rights for Muslim women and equal protection for Muslim girl children. In Sri Lanka, the constitution endorses inequality and inadequate protection for Muslim women and girls. Article 16 of the 1978 Constitution upholds, in its entirety, the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951. Consequently, Muslims are exempted from the 1995 law which decreed 16 as the minimum age of marriage for girls. A girl child from a Muslim family can be married at 12, or even below, with consent from the Islamic courts. Child marriage thus remains a significant problem among Lankan Muslims.

The post-January 2015 democratisation – and the concomitant abandonment of official racism – has created space for progressive groups, such as the Women's Action Network, to campaign for the removal of Article 16 from the new constitution. The campaign faces opposition from Muslim political and religious leaders. But the mere fact that the issue is being raised is a democratic advance. In the new atmosphere of greater openness, even diehard traditionalists cannot keep a lid on dissent from within their own communities. A group of 20 Muslim women from the North and the East appeared before the Constitutional Sub-committee on Human Rights to argue for the repealing of Article 16. Victims of Article 16 also came to Colombo to make their representations to the Parliament.


"I am not reconciled to a world in which a gesture or a word misunderstood can cost a life," wrote Heinrich Boll. Sri Lanka emerged from such a world less than two years ago. But the democratic advances of the post-Rajapaksa period can be undermined and even destroyed. The threat can come from governments (current and future), religious and cultural leaders and from society itself.

The current government is not free of anti-democratic impulses, but it is not wedded to them and does backtrack in the face of resistance. In March 2016, the administration, taking a leaf from the Rajapaksa playbook, published a notice in the state-owned Daily News, ordering websites to register with the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms & Mass Media before the end of the month or be considered illegal. Media organisations protested, websites refused to comply and the order was allowed to expire.

In Sri Lanka, the print, electronic and internet media organisations often do not work together often when faced with common threat. This time, only websites were targeted. When websites are targeted their general form of protest is to carry articles about the actual or potential act of repression. There is another reason why these protests are not unusual. Most websites operate from outside Sri Lanka since the owners had to go into self-exiles during the Rajapaksa years. Many of them have not returned, partly because the danger of a Rajapaksa return still exists.

Governments of the future can stymie the process of democratisation, especially if they happen to be controlled by the Rajapaksas. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration's inability to get the right economic principles in place has already caused some public discontent. If these failures are not addressed, the government's popularity will erode further and discontent is sure to mushroom. Such a situation would be tailor-made for the Rajapaksas who are determined to regain lost power. The informal division of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) along anti- and pro-Rajapaksa factions is likely to become official soon. And when the Rajapaksas formally break away from the SLFP and create a new political party, its ideological keystone will be Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy.

Inciting Sinhala-Buddhist fear and anger and forging those into potent weapons constitutes a major element in the Rajapaksa project of regaining power. They tried it when the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration restored the practice of singing the national anthem in Tamil, when eleven military personnel were arrested on suspicion of abducting the disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, and when the Office of the Missing Persons bill was presented to Parliament. These attempts at obstruction did not get off the ground because there was insufficient response from the Sinhala South. Though public discontent is growing, there is still some hope about the government's capacity to deliver on its many economic promises. But if these hopes are not realised by mid-to-late 2017 (the halfway mark of Sirisena's five-year term), if economic pains increase rather than decrease, there would be more receptive ears when the Rajapaksas make their next attempt at igniting anti-minority fires in the South. The many potential flashpoints include the revamping of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, the presenting of the new constitution, activation of the Office of Missing Persons and a serious effort to come up with a political solution to the ethnic problem.

History, national and global, demonstrates that politics cannot be divorced from economics. From the Weimer Republic to the fallout of Arab Spring, anti-popular economics played a key role in undermining and obliterating democratic politics. In Sri Lanka too, economics will play a major role in deciding whether the achievements of the last twenty months are protected and enhanced or stymied and destroyed. On several occasions in the past, Sri Lanka was terrified and seduced into veering away from the democratic path. Whether the lessons of those costly mistakes have been learnt or not only time will tell.

~ Tisaranee Gunasekara is a Sri Lanka commentator based in Colombo.

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