On 7 June, a three-day workshop on investigative journalism organised by Transparency International Sri Lanka ended abruptly when the local police ordered its cancellation. A ‘well-organised’ mob carrying printed placards (complete with colour photographs of some of the journalists) invaded the venue of the workshop, a hotel in the coastal town of Negombo, accusing the trainers and participants of being ‘traitors’. Instead of ordering the protestors out, the police demanded the cancellation of the workshop, for the safety of the participants!
The story did not end there. Fourteen Tamil journalists from the war-torn Northern Province were among the workshop participants. They were to stay the night at a five-star hotel in downtown Colombo. The hotel management reportedly received threats, and the journalists were asked to vacate the hotel soon after midnight. When questioned about these developments, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella came up with an explanation which seemed straight out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. If the workshop was attacked, the NGOs would have used the incident to make propaganda against Sri Lanka, the Minister opined. He called the police decision to cancel the workshop, “very good”. He insisted that the police were motivated by sheer concern for the safety of the journalists.
Earlier this year, a training workshop for Tamil journalists had to be abandoned after a mob led by Buddhist monks invaded the venue. In May 2014, a workshop on corruption was cancelled due to the military’s influence. The Army denied pressuring the hotel management: “We only informed them that according to our intelligence sources a group of people are organising a protest rally against the workshop,” the military spokesman stated. Subsequently, the owner of the hotel, Deputy Minister Siripala Gamlath, confirmed the allegations: “Our managers told me there is huge pressure from the Army, so I asked the organisers to get permission from the military. They apparently tried until noon, but failed.”
Had that code been enacted, critical commentaries, political exposés and common or garden bad news would have become legally punishable crimes in Sri Lanka. (For instance, this article could not have been written as it would have violated the ‘law’ on at least seven counts!)
Sri Lanka’s media consists of 182 registered newspapers and magazines, 48 registered radio channels and 21 registered TV channels. Apart from one newspaper, two radio stations and two TV stations, all other media outlets are privately owned. There is no official censorship in Sri Lanka. The government’s many and generous gifts to media personnel include free laptops, duty-free vehicle permits and low-interest loans. In December 2013, Minister Rambukwella revealed that 91 media personnel had obtained duty-free vehicle permits, and 496 media personnel were given free laptops.
In the present context, is Sri Lanka a place of media freedom, where journalists can ply their profession safely, under the tolerant gaze of a benevolent administration, or not?
In its latest Impunity Index, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) named Sri Lanka as the fourth worst country in the world for journalists.
Last year, the government tried to introduce a new code of ethics for the media. The proposal presented to the Parliament contained a list of 13 subjects on which reportage/commentary would be forbidden. These non-publishable areas ranged from the obvious to the downright bizarre. For instance according to the proposal, media was banned from publishing anything which ‘offends against expectations of the public, morality of the country or tend to lower the standards of public state and morality’, or ‘misleads the public, promotes anti-national attitudes’.
Had that code been enacted, critical commentaries, political exposés and common or garden bad news would have become legally punishable crimes in Sri Lanka. (For instance, this article could not have been written as it would have violated the ‘law’ on at least seven counts!) Freedom of expression would have been asphyxiated and a climate of blind obedience created, legally and constitutionally, without firing a single shot or raising a single club.
Fortunately, the timing of the proposal turned out to be unpropitious for the government. There was considerable debate about the suitability of Sri Lanka to host the next Commonwealth Summit. The many opponents of the Colombo Summit predictably used this regime’s Orwellian media ethics code to buttress their arguments. As a result, the proposal was set aside.
Many will be familiar with the category of ‘emerging democracy’. But in some instances, a country experiences a regressive transition in its political system, from a democracy to a non-democracy. Such a country can be termed a ‘retreating democracy’ or a ‘dying democracy’. Sri Lanka, under the increasingly despotic rule of President Mahinda Rajapakss and his powerful brothers, belongs in this category.
What a populace does not know, it cannot be concerned about or oppose. That is why retreating democracies seek to achieve ‘reality control’, on a national scale and on a daily basis. Such a gigantic task cannot be undertaken successfully without a compliant media.
Many will be familiar with the category of ‘emerging democracy’. But in some instances, a country experiences a regressive transition in its political system, from a democracy to a non-democracy. Such a country can be termed a ‘retreating democracy’ or a ‘dying democracy’.
The Rajapaksa regime has consciously avoided the two paths popular among emerging despots – takeover/closure of privately-owned media and the imposition of censorship. In Sri Lanka, critical voices have been silenced and the habit of self-censorship inculcated, without changing the ownership of media institutions or a censor’s omnipotent pen. The co-option of the once critical media is being achieved incrementally and the very gradualness of the process is making it near invisible to most people. It is a singular achievement which requires an in-depth study. The Rajapaksas are in fact writing a new manual on media-taming for the 21st century.
Many roads to a compliant media
In January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader was murdered. Wickrematunga was a strident critic of the government while the Sunday Leader played a leading role in exposing the widening gap between Rajapaksa-mandated reality and the really existing reality. Wickrematunga was shot at point-blank range by motorcycle riding gunmen, in broad daylight, in a busy junction abutting a high security zone. The murderers were never caught.
Attempts to neutralise journalists and the media in Sri Lanka come in a variety of forms. According to Sri Lankan journalist in exile Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, before Wickrematunga was murdered, President Rajapaksa actually offered to buy Leader Publications for LKR 400 million (USD 3 million). The offer was made to Wickrematunga’s older brother Lal, Chairman of the Leader Group. The offer was ignored.
Using proxies to purchase anti-government publications has become a fantastically successful way of taming entire media organisations. The two most outstanding examples were the 2008 purchase of Rivira Media Group and the 2012 purchase of Leader Publications. Fifty-one percent of Rivira shares were bought by Prasanna Wickramasuriya, a close relation of the President and the Chairman of Civil Aviation and Airport Services Authority. The rest was purchased by a UK-based businessman close to the Rajapaksa family. In the case of Leader Publications, a 72 percent stake was purchased by Asanga Seneviratne, another businessman with close links to the Rajapaksa family.
Another favourite method to deal with recalcitrant media personnel has been to stick the ‘pro-LTTE’ label on them. This has been particularly effective in attacking Tamil media personnel. J S Tissainayagam, a senior journalist based in Colombo and an ethnic Tamil, was arrested in March 2008 and detained for almost six months by the Terrorism Investigation Division without charges. He was subsequently charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for inciting communal disharmony and collecting money for terrorists. He told an open court that his captors compelled him to sign a statement which was then presented as a ‘confession’ to the court. In August 2009 he was sentenced to 20 years rigorous imprisonment. Following a global outcry, he was pardoned by President Rajapaksa in 2010. Today he lives in exile.
Made-to-order ‘demonstrations’ constitute another favourite method of media control. When Iqbal Athas, senior defence columnist and a contributor to Jane’s Defence Weekly, wrote about a possibly corrupt deal to purchase two second hand MIG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine, a group of people calling themselves campaigners for ‘real journalists’ demonstrated outside his home. The demonstration was organised by two ruling party politicians. A participant told the media that she was summoned for a women’s league meeting and was ‘bundled into a van’ with other members. They were taken to a Colombo intersection and “told to take part in a protest…. Some placards were given to us…. We could not understand what it was all about. That is why some of us were unable to tell television interviewers why we were present and what we were doing.” Athas left the country soon after the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga, and his highly-regarded column ‘The Situation Report’ vanished from the pages of the Sunday Times.
The Rajapaksa regime has consciously avoided the two paths popular among emerging despots – takeover/closure of privately-owned media and the imposition of censorship. In Sri Lanka, critical voices have been silenced and the habit of self-censorship inculcated, without changing the ownership of media institutions or a censor’s omnipotent pen.
Though the private media still has some latitude in criticising ruling party politicians, the President, his siblings and their families are strictly out of bounds. Even humour has become a dangerous subject when the target is a member of the presidential family.
In April 2014, the editor-in-chief of the Sinhala daily, Lakbima, was interrogated by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). His ‘crime’ was carrying a humorous caption over a picture of Ayoma Rajapaksa, the wife of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, presidential sibling and Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. She was shown shopping at the Civil Defence Department’s New Year fair, with the caption “They aren’t fake money, aren’t they?” The newspaper apologised the very next day, but to no avail. With that harmless quip, another ne plus ultra mark no one thought existed had been crossed. The CID grilled the editor-in-chief for three hours. The sub-editor, directly responsible for the caption, was dismissed from the job. Subsequently, the editor himself tended his resignation.
Since the Rajapaksas came to power in 2005, Lankan media has experienced a slow but steady narrowing of space. Outwardly very little has changed; but in reality almost nothing remains the same.
Only one area of the media remains outside the regime’s control – the internet.
Going after the Internet
Until the Arab Spring took the world by surprise, the Rajapaksas did not pay much attention to the Internet. Website readers are numerically small and mostly limited to urban centres. Apart from banning a few (Tamil-owned) websites, the government allowed the Internet to remain outside its purview.
The seminal role played by the Internet in the Arab uprisings caused a sea change in the attitude of the Rajapaksas. Suddenly, the regime began to pay attention to online media, seeing in it a serious potential threat. The fact that many local journalists deprived of space in the print and electronic media turned to the Internet made the government’s concerns more acute.
In January 2011, even as the Arab Spring was raging, the office of anti-government website Lanka e News was torched. Two months later, the editor of the website, senior journalist Bennet Rupasinghe, was arrested. In November 2011, several websites were temporarily banned for ‘character-assassinating’ the President. A new rule made registration with the government mandatory for all websites covering Lankan affairs.
The government’s efforts to apply pressure on critical online media outlets continued the following year. In June 2012, the joint office of two registered anti-government websites, Sri Lanka Mirror and Lanka X News, was raided and nine staffers – including the tea-boy – were arrested. The office was sealed, computers and phones seized and the home of a senior journalist working for Sri Lanka Mirror raided. That raid was conducted with excessive force; the aim was to instil fear in the minds of not only the victims, but also of all media personnel. Indeed, self-censorship thrives only where fear-psychosis predominates.
Since then, the regime has waged an unremitting war against online media. Once again, the methods used are varied and unorthodox. Some websites have been banned outright while others are unofficially blocked. The Internet service providers, most of them non-national privately-owned companies, comply with extra-legal government orders to block websites. As one of the banned websites, the Colombo Telegraph, reported, “The Telecom Regulatory Commission has officially issued instructions to mobile service providers to block… critical websites on its servers, with a warning that the companies are to maintain to customers that the inability to view these sites on the networks were merely ‘technical problems’.”
In June 2014, the opposition raised the issue of extra-legal website censorship in Parliament. Minister Rambukwella’s response indicates that the regime will intensify its war against online media freedom. Rambukwella identified the need for measures to ‘stop character assassinations’ carried out by websites driven by particular agendas and stated the need for the government to curtail websites that acted as ‘obstacles to a decent society’.
The government, in 2011, defeated the long-awaited Freedom of Information Bill in Parliament. Given the Bill’s critical absence, it has been almost impossible for Lankan media to obtain judicial intervention against the regime’s practice of de facto censoring. For instance, in 2012, the Supreme Court dismissed a case filed by several media organisations against the arbitrary blocking of five websites because the right to information is not ‘a fundamental right’.
Democracy extends far beyond holding regular, seemingly competitive elections. In the absence of core values such as the right to dissent, freedom of expression and free flow of information, the project of democracy is rendered hollow. The mere existence of multiparty elections cannot overcome this absence, and over time elections themselves become an empty charade for rulers seeking to demonstrate their ‘democratic’ credentials and legitimacy.
Democracy extends far beyond holding regular, seemingly competitive elections. In the absence of core values such as the right to dissent, freedom of expression, and free flow of information, the project of democracy is rendered hollow.
The Rajapaksa regime is driven by a desire to consolidate power and maintain long-term rule. Retaining a level of popular support is necessary for the success of their ‘dynastic project’, which cannot preserve control solely through force or legal mechanisms. This requires an uninformed/misinformed populace and, therefore, a compliant media.
The Rajapaksas want their Sinhala-Buddhist base to regard Sri Lanka as a haven of legality and morality, even though every crime, from murder to child rape, is on the rise. They want their Sinhala-Buddhist base to believe that Sri Lanka is the next ‘development miracle’, even though there are signs of emerging economic problems. The Rajapaksas do not want their Sinhala-Buddhist base to see the nexus between economic hardships and astronomical defence costs, or the connection between economic woes in the South and political oppression in the North. Such discordant information can make groundless optimism untenable and excite disaffection. The official narrative should be the only one which is heard.
In February 2008, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa filed a defamation case against the Sunday Leader for its coverage of the Ukrainian MiG figher jet deal. The case received wide publicity in the state and private media. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa gave his evidence on 22 May 2014. His cross-examination by defence counsel (and TNA parliamentarian) M A Sumanthiran started on 27 May 2014.
Logically and rationally the courthouse should have been teeming with media personnel. After all, this is news with a capital ‘N’. Yet when cross-examination began, only correspondents from the BBC tried – unsuccessfully – to enter the court premises. Two senior cops barred their way and informed them, “Nobody in their right minds would come here. No other media had come to cover this because they know the consequences.”
Sumanthiran’s questions and Rajapaksa’s answers should have been headline news. Yet the mainstream media did not cover the story. The media was ‘free’ to write; and they did not write. It seems ‘they know the consequences’. A fitting epitaph indeed, for Sri Lanka’s once vibrant media.
~Tisaranee Gunasekara is a Sri Lankan commentator based in Colombo.