Tissanayagam saga: media, state and freedom Part II
Posted on January 8th, 2010

H. L. D. Mahindapala

The state of the media in Sri Lanka is not all black and white. It has it own gradations and shades. It has its ups and downs. It has its own strengths and weaknesses. But what is remarkable is the staying power of the media to produce pluralist opinions under the most trying conditions.

Once, when I was in The Observer in the early nineties, Article 18 and later Chris Morris of the BBC, interviewed me about the dominant role played by the state media and the perceived threats to free media in Sri Lanka. This was soon after Victor Ivan launched his Ravaya, with the benign blessings of the Western embassies, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake who had broken away from the Premadasa government.

My interviewers were concerned that the state was dominating the media scene and it was a threat to democracy and free media. I disagreed with them and told them that my definition of free media meant the availability of diverse publications and outlets for any citizen to buy any shade of opinion he/she prefers in the media market. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was a Minister in Premadasa’s government, came up with the statistic that there were 50-odd publications put out by the media outlets outside Lake House. Since then the private sector has increased its share, both in the print and electronic media.

I further argued that in Sri Lanka the private sector and the public sector have a fair share of the media market and the balance between the two sectors maintained a free market for opinions to compete. My position was that as long as the reading, listening and viewing public had access to competing ideologies, news, views and reviews it was difficult to argue that there was no freedom of the press.

This was also the time when the NGOs were financing the activists in the “Free Media” front in which some of its leaders had campaigned for the take over Lake House and the Times groups of newspapers. In the seventies, the Times group of journalists were controlled by Bala Tampoe, the charismatic Trotskyite trade union leader of white collar workers in the city. Ironically, these pro-Marxist champions of state control of the media were leading the “Free Media” front. They, however, could not account for the money they were throwing around, dining and wining and organizing public meetings in various parts of the country “”…” an expensive task even for established political parties. Some of them were also in the forefront of the attack on Lake House when Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike came into power in May 1970. Some in this Left-wing mob forced their way into Lake House and burnt the library which contained some valuable archival material.

The left-wing leaders of the “Free Media” front who were for the state control of the media in the 70s’ when Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was controlling the media did a volte -face and campaigned against the state-control of Lake House in the 90s during President Premadasa’s time. She took over the media assuming that she would be in power forever to control the media the way she wants. So did the Marxists who aided and abetted her. But when governments changed hands she and the Marxists were at the receiving end of the nationalized media. In short, they were hoisted by their own petard.

When the ownership of Lake House changed hands with the change of government the “Free Media” freaks were frustrated that their left wing masters were no longer in command of Lake House. They were demanding news-room democracy where the journalists alone could decide on the contents of the daily newspapers. They branded the journalists working for state media as “stooges” of the UNP. They said that the state should hand over the shares to the workers and let them control Lake House. They were all for transparency and accountability except when it came to their affairs. Hiding behind the “Free Media” front they were acting as a front for Chandrika Bandaranaike, the opposition candidate at the time, and when she came into power practically all those in the “Free Media” front dropped the cry against state-control of media and crept into key positions in Lake House. Others took up positions in the Presidential Secretariat. The cries of news room democracy and distribution of shares to the workers disappeared overnight. So much for the “Free Media” front financed by the anti-Premadasa NGOs!

As seen in politics of the “Free Media” front, there is a lot of hypocrisy about those who cry for free media. For instance, a common characteristic in Sri Lankan politics is for the ruling party to raise issues of media freedom not when they are in power but only when they lose power and go into the opposition. Then the opposition raises Cain pretending to be virtuous defenders of free media only because they do not have the state power to use and abuse the state media to their advantage. It is also true that the mainstream political parties, whether in the government or in the opposition, have been guilty of either using violence against the journalists, or making use of its legal and administrative powers to take punitive action against journalists who do not toe their line.

Violence against journalist is not directed only by the state. The opposition has its own army of thugs and uses them when they are out of power. One leading example is that of Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke. When he attended the funeral Maj-Gen Vijaya Wimalaratne killed by the Tigers, he was attacked physically by the thugs loyal to Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake who were in the opposition then, having fallen out with President Premadasa. Dayan was an outspoken defender of the pro-people programmes of Premadasa. The battle was between Kehelwatte, the home of Premadasa and Kurunuduwatte, the elitist haven of Lalith and Gamini, They were the leading champions of the free media at the time but that didn’t prevent them from unleashing their dogs on Dayan.

My experiences were not so violent but near enough. At an embassy party A. T. Ariyaratne threatened to throw me out of the country once he became president! His nephew, Harsha Navaratne, had warned me earlier that his uncle, Ariyaratne, had ambitions of becoming the president and ruling the nation as a one-man saviour. On an earlier occasion, in the sixties, when I wrote a critical review of a Sinhala play the dramatist, who later became a prominent film director, threatened to kill me. At the height of crisis between Dudley Senanayake and J. R. Jayewardene “”…” a crisis in which I was the meat in the sandwich — Esmond Wickremesinghe, my boss, who won the Golden Pen for the fight he put up to save Lake House from Mrs. B;s first attempt to take over, told me that if he had the power he would sack me because of my involvement in the Dudley-JR .battle. He was in JR’s camp and I was for Dudley. Fortunately for me genial Ranjit Wiewardene, who was married to Dudley’s niece, was the Chairman of Lake House at the time. Later Mrs. Bandaranaike and Ariyaratne sued me for millions in an attempt to silence me. I hit the headlines when The Island sued me for 60 million. Even in Australia I’ve been threatened by agents of Tamil Tigers.

So the threats to journalists can come from diverse sources, not necessarily from the state, and in diverse forms like legal threats. Living with threats is an occupational hazard for journalists. It is a profession in which you are forced, at times, to hit hard to cut the cant out, or to remove the fig leaves covering the hypocrisy of humbugs, or even to be heard above the cacophony of voices competing to dominate the public discourse. In a sense, journalism is a profession where survival is least guaranteed to the fittest.

Amidst all these obstacles, Sri Lanka has produced its share of media giants who towered over the heads of Prime Ministers and Presidents. Of course, they had to pay a price. Denzil Peiris, Tarzie Vittachi, both editors of The Observer and Aubrey Collette, its celebrated international cartoonist, are three giants who had to migrate after they were considered almost persona non grata in the post-Mrs. Bandaranaike decades. Even Regi Siriwardene, the Westernized left-wing idol of pink-lefties, signed an in-house petition against Collette’s cartoon in which he depicted Mrs. B in bed with the Marxists under the caption “Strange bedfellows”. It was not the climate for those who were used to the pre-Mrs. B era of the free media. All these events prove that obstacles to free media can come even from the journalists. The migration of the journalists to other shores, however, did not throttle other dissenting voices. It is up to the journalists to keep on fighting to regain their rights just not from the state but even from the private sector owners who can be, sometimes, more vicious in censoring public opinion than the state media.

Nevertheless, what is noteworthy, amidst all these threats, is the degree of freedom exercised by the proliferating non-state media. This belies the accusation that the Sri Lankan state has a Stalinist grip on the media, or has the capacity to do so. Besides, neither the state media nor the private sector media need complain about being overwhelmed by the other as the state network of print and electronic media is adequate to meet any onslaught from the private sector, and vice versa. As stated earlier, there is an acceptable balance in the ownership of the media with the private and public sectors owning a fair share of the media market. And despite all obstacles and challenges thrown in its path, the private sector media is giving a good run to the state media.

Furthermore, the freedom exercised by the Tamil lobbies to promote separatist politics has been ignored. The myth perpetuated and broadcast is that there is almost a total blackout of news and views coming from the Tamil side of the divide. But the reality is different. Directly or indirectly, pro-Tiger publications, rallies, seminars, activists functioned at all levels, from parliament, NGOs and academia to videos, websites etc. The private sector media opened up free space and time for the apologists of the LTTE in NGOs like Jehan Perera, Kumar Rupesinghe, “Paki” Saravanamuttu etc.

Websites, Youtubes, SMS’s, Twitters etc., have made censorship of editors in the private media and the state a futile exercise. Until lately TamilNet, the mouthpiece of the Tigers, was freely available. But despite the ban on it there are ways of circumventing it. Print media, in particular, is fighting a losing battle to the opposition coming from Website, Youtube, SMS, Twitter etc. Going on-line is the way to the future. Editors who think they can rule the public mind by shutting out opinion or news that goes against their politics are living in a fool’s paradise. The days when the editors’ diktats ruled the day are over. The new media have taken over and the old-fashioned print media have to compete with the new kids in bloc to survive.

Besides, the revelations of corruption in the media have taken the shine out of the media. Investigations and confessions have revealed that some journalists were in the pay of NGOs, as admitted by Kumar Rupesinghe, another NGO pundit. Some of the editors too were in league with NGO mudalalis who were throwing some crumbs their way. There is an unhealthy and unacceptable coalition between the private sector media and the NGOs flushed with money to buy journalists. Jehan Perera, Pakisothy Saravanamuttu etc., are parasitic leeches surviving on the free space allotted to them by the media. Despite the millions they earn from foreign sources they are given free advertising space for their anti-national propaganda. Why should the NGO commercials be given free advertising space and not Keels’ sausages? In any case, is there any difference between the two?

Media bosses should seriously consider imposing advertising rates to NGO commercials on the same scale of rates applied to other commercial products and with that income increase the salaries of journalists. In the name of working for the good of peace these NGOs helped to varnish the image of the intransigent Evil-lam ruling the Vanni with an iron fist. This inevitably prolonged the futile war and undermined the overall interests of communal harmony, lasting peace and the chances of ending violence. If the private sector bosses are reluctant to impose advertising rates on these vendors of anti-national agendas then the state should consider imposing a heavy tax on each NGO article or appearance and use those funds to rehabilitate the victims of a needless war they backed with bogus theories and pontifications. Tissanayagam, in his own misguided way, fell into this category of do-gooders who were paving the path to hell believing that it would lead to a political heaven. .

To be continued

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