UNP MP Lakshman Seneviratne has said that President Mahinda Rajapaksa invites newspaper editors to Temple Trees, treats them to kiribath and then threatens them not to write anything against his government. Therefore, according to him, the truth doesn`t get reported and the people are now turning to websites to ascertain credible information.
We, in fact, wanted to respond to this remark yesterday but the budget distracted us. If one is to go by Mr. Seneviratne`s contention, then newspaper editors have their mouths stuffed with kiribath and therefore cannot utter a word against either the President or the government. That may be true of the kept press, which has mastered the art of bootlicking. But, to say that all others are doing so is far from the truth. Whether the President is threatening journalists on the sly, we don`t know but he doesn`t do so at editors` meetings. And Mr. Seneviratne can rest assured that if any such threat is issued at such a gathering, kiribath or no kiribath, at least the humble editor of this newspaper will get up and tell the President with due respect to go to hell and keep his kiribath for his own consumption on the way. For, it is our considered opinion as journalists that we are neither above nor below anyone else, be it a mendicant or the President of the Republic and therefore mustn`t prostrate ourselves before any potentate.
We hold no brief for the President lest we should be misunderstood. This comment is only an attempt to counter the impression that Mr. Seneviratne`s remark may have created in the public mind that all editors who attend the President`s breakfast meetings have sold their souls to him for a piece of kiribath, which doesn`t cost more than ten rupees in an eatery.
We don`t intend a sweeping statement that all journalists are paragons of virtue. A former minister of the PA government said in public some journalists could be bought for a bottle of arrack. He was not wrong. That`s why press conferences are usually followed by cocktails. Some scribes may say no to kiribath but gobble up fancy food at embassy parties, down scotch, tell foreign envoys what they love to hear and get paid for their contribution to promoting anti-national causes. That is why we have been campaigning through these columns for making journalists who wield a tremendous influence over the public mind declare their financial assets and account for their earnings. Those who are critical of politicians for not declaring their assets must be prepared to practise what they preach, mustn`t they?
Politicians do a lot of kerb crawling for journalists when they are in the Opposition. Their concern for media freedom knows no bounds. They are ready to die for the press. But, they bare their true faces only after they capture power. As much as a government in power tries to have journalists toe its line, the Opposition is desperate to turn scribes into malleable tools to achieve its objective of toppling the government. It is up to the scribes not to be political tarts. But, the problem is that some scribes volunteer to practise the oldest profession.
There was a massive movement spearheaded by journalists and the then Opposition politicians to protect media freedom before the 1994 General Election. The Free Media Movement (FMM) was at the forefront of that campaign. But, after the return of the SLFP-led PA to power, the bigwigs of the FMM got into much coveted government posts thus making a mockery of their free media campaign. Some others tried to be eminences grises but became disgruntled as the omniscient President Chandrika Kumaratunga had no need for anyone else`s help to run the show. Thereafter, they started a vilification campaign against her. Paradoxically, she has become a heroine to her arch enemies who went all out to prevent her from winning in 1994. Today, we have some scribes and media rights pundits batting for their masters in the Opposition just like the kept press barking and biting at the government`s behest.
That politicians use journalists like karapincha or curry-leaves is only too well known. They are used for a specific purpose and then discarded. Under any political dispensation, we have the rejected karapincha journalists aligning themselves with another set of politicians.
A good scribe is never anybody`s darling. He or she also spurns without any hesitation rupees, dollars, pounds, yen and, most of all, kronor/kronur/kroner being lavished on the Fourth Estate to entice its members into working for anti-national causes.
For such men and women a President is no hero. It is from working under threats that they get the kick in life. It is they who gave President Premadasa sleepless nights and ran rings round his repressive government, of which the present day media rights champions were members. That was the time when the coverage of an Opposition political event involved a great deal of running for the independent journalists who became the targets of goons and the police. (In 1993, when the pro-government thugs, ably assisted by the police, set upon mourners and the media personnel returning from the funeral of DUNF Leader Lalith Athulathmudali, two of our journalists had to hook it from the Borella cemetery all the way up to Orugodawatta, from where a kind trishaw driver gave them a lift to Bloemandhal Road.) There are many other instances where journalists were even physically eliminated.
So, those journalists who know politicians for what they really are don`t believe in the crocodile tears they shed for the media by the barrel to the point of dehydration. They know that they must be wary of wily politicians of all hues who try to make a cat`s paw of the media.