Among the many uses of the free press is the purpose it serves as a punching bag for political potentates. It receives, punches, kicks and head butts relentlessly but it is always politicians who grow tired in the end. The game of media bashing is as old as the hills. And that will go on so long as politicians inhabit this planet. If given a choice between creating a world without terrorism and a world without a free media, politicians would opt for the latter.
As a red rag to a bull, so has the free press been to the executive presidents of this country. The mere mention of the press has been sufficient for them to go into a fit of rage. So, it was only natural that President Mahinda Rajapaksa suddenly blew a gasket, while addressing a public rally in Ratnapura (City of Gems) on Sunday and started lambasting the media to his heart s content.
Ironically, President Rajapaksa used to be the darling of the publications he breathed fire at by innuendo. At a time when he was sidelined in the Kumaratunga government, which was run by a coterie of lackeys, he was dependent on certain newspapers for exposure and having his stories in. The best story, as any journalist knows, comes from the most disgruntled member of an organisation, who has an axe to grind with its boss. Outspoken and something of a political maverick with excellent PR (in his Opposition days), Mahinda Rajapaksa became the blue eyed boy of the media at that time, as is well known to one and all in the media circles.
But, trouble began the moment it was known that he would be the SLFP s presidential candidate. Most of his media pals ditched him as their agenda was to help someone else become President. And that someone was UNP Candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe. The 2005 presidential polls saw realignment of political forces and friends turning foes who launched vilification campaigns against those who had been their best sources a few moons back.
President Kumaratunga, unable to put the kibosh on information leaks which gave her sleepless nights, was so perturbed by the then Minister Rajapaksa s rapport with the media, , she accused him of being the Cabinet reporter ! (After he became Prime Minister he insisted that he be called at least an editor!) That was the time when President Kumaratunga was tilting at printing presses, one of which she sealed. She put the political lexicon she had acquired from the leftist hangers-on trailing her late husband Vijaya to good use in attacking the media. She also coined some fascinating terms such as bibikkama (a kind of inexpensive cake) to describe the Constitution and jaathika aandu valippuwa (national government epilepsy) to deride journalists who called for a national government, and panuwa (worm) to insult an editor she despised.
Now that her b te noire Rajapaksa is in power much to her annoyance, she has joined forces with the media personnel she used to call names when she was in power. Thus, we have a situation where the former friends of the incumbent President are doing their damnedest to destroy him politically while the former arch enemies of the ex-President are falling over themselves to promote her too late in the day, though. Who says it is only in politics that crossovers happen? Media men and women, too, defect and the epithet frog applies to them as well.
We have pointed out in these columns some striking similarities between Mahinda Chinthanaya and Premadasaism. President Premadasa, like all executive presidents except President Wijetunga, disported himself in bashing the independent media whenever he had an opportunity. The mention of the word, paththara (newspapers), was enough for him to throw a tantrum. He launched into a furious tirade against the independent media critical of him, especially this newspaper. At that time, the alternative publications were very vibrant and popular as the electronic media were not allowed to carry local news bulletins and political interviews were never heard of. They were all tarred with the same brush as we! And President Premadasa, a master of oratory, would get on his hobby horse at public meetings seeking to tear the paththara bissa (a large amount of newspapers) considered hostile to him to shreds.
His predecessor J. R. Jayewardene had done likewise but in a more sophisticated way. He didn t believe in stooping to the level of venting his cultured spleen on the press in public. Instead, he used other methods. Once he summoned an eminent banker and warned him not to do business with this newspaper group. When the banker and gentleman plucked up his courage to fly in the face of that executive fiat, JRJ asked him in a round about way whether he was not concerned about the safety of his family but in vain! He also burdened us with a competent authority in a bid to curtail our freedom.
We stop short of listing all the details of the witch-hunts launched by successive Heads of State against the media but suffice it to say that attacking the media has become an executive valippuwa of sorts. (President Wijetunga was an exception probably because he was not in power for long enough to contract the disease!)
However, we make no attempt to portray all members of the press as paragons of virtue. The media remains partisan and corrupt. We mean it. Some of the members of the Fourth Estate have compromised professional conduct, lured by real estate it is not only small blocks of land and houses that they have got from politicians. Some of them have allegedly got estates! Many are the worthy members of the press in the pay of foreign powers with sinister agendas. It is they who leave room for politicians to accuse a section of the media of trying to scuttle the war effort and promote separatist terrorism. The media has its quota of Dr. Mervyns who have brought journalism into disrepute much to the consternation of the genuine practitioners. The way to raise the professional standards of the media is not to let out a howl of protest when someone claims some journalists could be bought for a bottle of arrack, but to invite the public to make complaints against such elements, probe them and weed them out. Will the guardians of the media hear?
Meanwhile, the best service that politicians can do to the media is to leave it alone. And the best way they can silence the press is to behave themselves. If they eliminated evils like waste, bribery and corruption, abuse of power, nepotism, cronyism, suppression of dissent and election malpractices, the press would be left with nothing to use against them. They would be happy and so would be the people. If that day ever dawned, we would be able to write about bees and butterflies.