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Press Freedom and Thuggery under the PA

By Mohamed Alfisani Nizam ([email protected])

The verdict given by the supreme court on the government sponsored bill to regulate the media, is a great victory for democracy and a warning to all politician , that they should not try to use intimidation and strong arm tactics against the independent press and expect to get away with it. Although the present government leaders try to show excuses as to how such a bill came in to being and try to put the whole blame on the Media minister as a blunder on his part, the intelligent people of Sri Lanka know otherwise. This whole episode was a calculated strategy, on the part of the government, to stop the media from exposing their blunders and corruption, that just blew up on their faces.

The key factor that this whole incident underlines, is the fact that the present leaders of the People Alliance have very serious problems with their memories. They have forgotten, among the many other promises they gave to the people, the fact that it was the independent journalists who worked so hard to ensure victory of the Peoples Alliance. If it wasn't for those journalist, it could have well been that the PA would have lost the General elections, because the margin by which the PA won was a very small one - about 7 percentage points. In return the PA leaders promised the sun and the moon and the heavens beyond to everybody - especially the free press. These were the days when the President was know as the darling of the free media. But it did not take more than a few months for the very same journalists to be labelled " wild asses" by the very same people they worked so hard to get elected.

Although, this bill introduced by the government exposes the real intentions of the government, it should not come as a surprise. Anyone who has been following the news: the true intentions of the government would have become obvious just a couple of months after the PA came in to power.

The first victim of PA thuggery towards the press, was none other than the Editor of the Sunday leader Mr. Lasantha Wickramatunga. Mr Wickramatunga, who was fearlessly exposing the blunders, the corruption and excesses of the PA, was brutally assaulted by PA sponsored thugs when he was on his was home after work, with his wife. He miraculously escaped death and while he was in hospital, in an interview with the with the late Ravi John, named a very high ranking official in the presidential secretariat as being responsible for the assault.

Then came the assault on the editors of the sinhala tabloids Satana and Siyarate , in a very similar manner to which Mr Wickramatunga became a victim of. These were followed by many journalists being harassed by the CID. Several of them were taken to the infamous 4th floor, of the CID building, something which the PA leaders promised they would never allow when they came to power. The PA government even went up to the extent of threatening to close down the Island newspaper group, which was run by the Presidents own uncle. One of the well publicised stories of journalists being taken to the 4th floor , was of TNL news director Mrs Ishani Wickramasingha, for publishing a report that a Special Task force camp in the east of the country was attacked, which the government denied. Instead of demanding a correction of the news item, Mrs Wickramasingha was dragged to the CID building and forced to climb four floor of stair cases, even while she was allegedly suffering from a kidney ailment.

Another, very interesting story was how a deputy Minister of the PA government and the father of a very prominent figure in Sri Lankan Cricket, got his "men" to attack a TV crew who were filming an "event" which the minister knew was going to harm his public image. The deputy minister was under the impression that the TV crew was from the private TNL TV station. But after the "Job" was completed the minister found out, to his utter horror that the crew was from none other than the state owned ITN station. Eventually the minister had to apologise to his own people for "mistaken identity."

The list of Thuggery and intimidation against the journalists is endless but the saddest out come of the whole episode was how the media minister conducted himself. Mr Darmasiri Senanayake, along with people like, Mr Laxman Kadirgame, Mahinda Rajapaksha and Srimani Athulathmudali, was considered one of the few ministers in the present government , who were truly genuine and as a man who stuck to his principles. He himself a journalist, many felt sympathy towards him as they considered him a man who genuinely wanted to uphold press freedom but was under severe presser from his cabinet colleagues to control the "wild asses". When the supreme court delivered the verdict, saying that the media bill, in it's current form, was against the constitution and needed a two thirds majority in parliament ,to be approved, the media minister came out with a rather comical statement, to deflect the embarrassment it brought about. He quickly issued a statement saying that the bill, which was presented to parliament by none other than the PA leader of the house, was a bill that had been drafted by the previous UNP government and no one should blame the present government, for it.

The former media minister of the UNP government Mr. Tyronne Fernando, while admitting that the idea of a media authority was first given thought to, during the UNP administration, totally denied that it was ever approved by the UNP cabinet nor did it have the clauses which calls for the Private TV and radio stations to renew their Licenses annually and to be at the mercy of the licensing board, which included representatives from the defence ministry and other political institutions , which were hardly related to the media. This was the most vital clause in the whole bill and which the supreme court ruled was against the constitution.

For arguments sake, lets assume the whole bill was drafted by previous UNP administration. But this does not mean the PA has to continue with it. The people elected the PA because they promised to be different to the previous administration. And even more so, with the government boasting of having such a brilliant legal expert in the form of the current Justice minister (who incidentally is fast emerging as the biggest hypocrite ever to take up politics in Sri Lanka) , couldn't the government have asked him to go through the whole bill and see if it was consistent with the constitution and the PA election manifesto, which was written by none other than the justice minister himself? because of this one statement Mr. Senanayake has lost his image as one of the very few honest gentlemen in the government and will be looked upon, here after as being in the same level as most of his other cabinet colleagues.

In this situation, it will be of utter stupidity on the part of the government to try and come up excuses as to why it went ahead with such a dictatorial bill. Instead it will be advisable for the government to either stick to the promises given to the people or resign.

04 June 1997 18:54:52

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