Unnerving warnings
Posted on April 21st, 2016

Editorial Courtesy The Island

President Maithripala Sirisena has recently said something that media rights activists should take notice of. He is reported to have stressed, at a meeting with the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission top brass and media heads that some of the electronic media outfits breach the terms of their licences.

This is not the first time a government leader has referred to the licences of electronic media by way of a warning. There is little that the government can do to prevent such statements being seen as an attempt to use its authority to cancel the licences at issue as the sword of Damocles.

Successive governments have had issues with licences of privately owned, independent electronic media organisations. That they have had problems with the print media as well goes without saying. Until 1994, privately owned radio and TV stations had been barred from broadcasting/telecasting local news. The credit for removing that draconian restriction should go to Chandrika Kumaratunga, who upon being elected President in that year freed the media from such shackles. But, The Sunday Leaderpress was attacked and journalists were assaulted and even killed under her government. Electronic media have also been attacked for refusing to give in to politicians in power; goons carried out arson attacks on Sirasa and Siyatha TV stations under the Rajapaksa government which also stood accused of killing journalists including Lasantha Wickrematunga.

No such unfortunate incidents have so far happened under the new dispensation. But, politicians know more than one way to shoe a horse. Some of them seem to think they can frighten the media into submission by issuing warnings without resorting to violence which causes them to incur public opprobrium and international condemnation.

In the worst case scenario, the licence of an electronic media organisation which refuses to fall in line may be cancelled. But, does anyone with an iota of common sense think such action will help overcome dissent? Nobody is equal to the task of controlling or suppressing information in the modern world. (Scientists now tell us that not even black holes can eliminate ‘information’!) Any effort to control the mainstream media will result in the public becoming more dependent on social media guided by Rafferty’s rules or no rules at all, for obtaining information. That will be disadvantageous to the government which is already smarting from ruthless attacks by various websites. Having effectively used the social media against the previous regime the present administration must be aware what it is like to be a target of cyber piranhas.

The current administration owes the success of its political campaign which helped dislodge the Rajapaksa government to its propaganda drive fuelled by information and misinformation alike. Its leaders now pontificating about the virtues of ethical reporting used both mainstream and alternative media to expose and in most cases vilify their predecessors. Today, in spite of having the entire state machinery at their disposal they cannot prove the serious allegations they levelled against the leaders of the previous government. Needless to say, they would have had to face many law suits if their attempt to oust the Rajapaksa government had come a cropper; perhaps they would have been sued out of existence as they say.

Most of the present-day government grandees have either throttled the media or been part of the regimes which not only suppressed the freedom of expression but also were responsible for attacking media institutions and killing messengers. Circumstances may have compelled them to behave, but old habits die hard. Like the proverbial cat which, despite being trained to hold a lamp on a dining table, got excited on seeing a rat, they tend to lose self-control when they get an opportunity to revile the media.

Legal remedies are available for victims of slander or libel. Politicians and others can make use of them in dealing with media outfits responsible for violating the law. Besides, there are regulatory bodies that one can turn to in case of ethical issues concerning the media. Issuing warnings calculated to unnerve journalists is not the way.


One Response to “Unnerving warnings”

  1. Kumari Says:

    Not very long ago, Sirisena wanted to introduce “death penalty ” for people dealing in or caught with drugs. This was to frame his and his regime’s opponents. He gets this bright ideas to please his sponsors. Under many presidents the media freedom was not curtailed through legislation though we did not agree the respective government’s treatment of media and the reporters.

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