There is a furore over the arrest of some journalists. They have been taken in, the Defence Ministry says, because of their alleged links with the LTTE. Three of them, the Defence Spokesman says, have confessed that they have been trained by the LTTE to use firearms and explosives, presumably for high profile assassinations. Investigations are on, the government says, to find whether they were involved in the recent bomb blasts in buses. These are very serious charges.
Several media rights groups have launched a protest campaign against their arrests, which they say amount to abductions. Some of them are demanding the immediate release of the suspects.
The issue has led to an ethical dilemma of unprecedented proportions, which warrants a serious discussion on a number of questions about journalism and journalists in this country. The broad definition of a journalist is fairly well known. In the conventional sense of the term, anyone who works for or edits newspapers etc. is a journalist. The word `etc` is of import, as it leaves the term flexible vis-`E0-vis the branching out of the mass media and the attendant exponential expansion of the field. Whoever thought of `online` journalists some decades ago?
The question is not so much who a journalist is, but how one becomes a journalist in this country. We have two fields where no selection criteria are adhered to at all?politics and journalism. By way of qualifications, anything goes in journalism just like in politics. Anyone?a greenhorn or a shady character?could be catapulted to the top notches in a media organisation overnight just the way National List MPs are appointed and made ministers! No qualifications?educational, professional or otherwise?are required! Journalism has thus become a mixed bag of real practitioners and quacks. There`s the rub!
A good journalist believes that he is neither above nor below anyone else. But, there is a new breed of journalists who seem to believe that they are above all others. They are the ones who flash their media accreditation cards at police/military checkpoints or when booked for speeding. They appear to cherish the delusion that they are above the law as well. Ironically, they are the very ones who campaign for stripping politicians of their legal immunity! To them, the so-called press card is a passport to unrestricted access?even to heaven. They need to be reminded that by virtue of holding the media accreditation card, they don`t become `more equal than` others. Nor can they use their position as journalists to rise above the law.
There are some media persons to whom security checks have become something like a red rag to a bull. What a noise they make on being challenged to prove identity or being frisked! But, strangely, they were as meek as house mice at Prabhakaran`s press conference (2002) at Killinochchi, where they were made to stand with their tongues lolling out, noses being squeezed and earlobes pulled by Tiger cubs to ensure that there were no hidden weapons that would pose a threat to Prabhakaran`s life.
Journalists, no doubt, deserve freedom to carry out their duties and functions without let or hindrance. But, they ought to realise that sky is not the limit. Similarly, it behoves the powers that be to desist from using the prevailing situation as an excuse to harass the members of the fourth estate and deny them access to information. There are political and military bigwigs who are trying to have us believe that exposing corruption in the Defence establishment poses a threat to national security!
Some worthy members of the fourth estate have placed themselves at the disposal of politicians as propaganda hit men. And they are being propped up by the slush funds of social undesirables. They are campaigning to make the politicians declare their financial assets without setting an example by practising what they preach. There are disturbing reports of some journalists being in the pay of certain foreign powers aiding and abetting terrorism in this country and it is incumbent upon the champions of media freedom to initiate an investigation and let the public know the truth. Such unsavoury elements in the garb of scribes, if any, must be named, shamed and kicked out of the profession.
We cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that there is already one `journalist` in remand over his alleged involvement in the assassination of Major Tuan Muthaliff. The suspect is reported to have even covered Parliamentary proceedings.
Media freedom and rule of law must co-exist for democracy to flourish. They mustn`t be brought on a collision course, if it is the wellbeing of democracy that we seek. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening as could be seen from the unfolding drama. As much as it is the duty of the law enforcement authorities to act with responsibility in dealing with the press, it is imperative that the media rights groups be able to separate journalism from terrorism and help identify terror advocates masquerading as journalists. That is the greatest service that they can render to the real media men and women who have done their profession proud.