The usually harassed and abused journalist becomes the belle of the ball, as it were, for politicians during election times. We see at present politicos of all hues falling over themselves to woo the media, which they obviously despise and detest like a pest at other times. Palatial mansions and posh hotels are running red with wine in honour of humble scribes who are regaled with pleasantries and jokes by `kings` and aspirants to the throne sans regalia, epaulet and `warlike` accoutrements.
Suddenly, the government has remembered the poor journalists who were attacked and/or killed. The probe into Lasantha Wickramatunga`s killing has been handed over to the CID, something that should have been done a long time ago. However, better late than never! That heinous crime must be investigated thoroughly and the perpetrators brought to justice without further delay.
Special loans for journalists are being processed at an unbelievable speed courtesy of President Mahinda Rajapaksa`s government, which has also promised houses for them. Santa seems to have made an early arrival with a saataka around his neck!
Not to be outdone, the Opposition has sought to match the government`s promises to journalists. Its Common Presidential Candidate and former Army Commander Gen. (Retd) Sarath Fonseka, who hosted a five star reception for the media on Monday, vowed to legislate for the protection of the media in the event of his election as president. He also promised pay hikes and houses for the media personnel. As for salary increases, we wonder how a politician, even if elected President, would be able to enhance the remuneration of journalists working with the privately owned media, which does not come under government purview. He may be able to shower pay hikes on the state media. But, he has taken the State media to the Supreme Court over a propaganda offensive allegedly derogatory of him. Is it that he wants the personnel attached to those media institutions to benefit from his promised pay hike?
Why should any politician, President Rajapaksa or Sarath Fonseka, worry about the housing needs of journalists? We, in these columns, keep reiterating the fact that more than one half of the people in this fabulous garden city of Colombo live in slums and shanties. There are millions of people without a roof over their heads countrywide. Journalists cannot be considered `more equal` than others when it comes to a basic human need. Any preferential treatment given to media personnel by a government in providing houses or land amounts to bribery!
Journalists, no doubt, need houses. The best way to solve their problem is to find a solution to the housing problem of the public as a whole. Developing the economy to enhance the people`s income so that they could afford houses making housing loans affordable to the public, controlling the prices of building materials kept artificially high by unscrupulous businesses and State assisted housing schemes (not jerry-built) for different income groups are some of the measures that may be adopted to solve the problem.
Fonseka, on Monday, quoting Napoleon, said four journalists were equal to 1,000 bayonets! Looking around, he quipped that the journalists present at his party could be equated to 200,000 bayonets!
A journalist may be equal so many bayonets (250, to be exact) but all it takes to silence him is only a single `iron spike` (driven into his head)! What Lasantha suffered at the hands of his killers is a case in point. About 500 bayonets (read two journalists, the Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon and The Nation Associate Editor Keith Noyahr) have fled the country fearing `iron spikes`.
Fonseka told the media that the government was trying to implicate him in the killing of a journalist. He may dismiss what his rivals say about him as malicious propaganda. But, unfortunately for him, a serious allegation against him has come from his friends in the UNP, which gave him a rousing welcome at its National Convention the other day and threw its weight behind him in the presidential race. Chief Opposition Whip and UNP MP Joseph Michael Perera, speaking in Parliament sometime ago accused him of directing violent attacks on journalists. On July 08, 2008, BBC reported Perera`s speech thus:
`Sri Lanka`s main opposition party has accused the country`s most senior army officer of being behind violent attacks on reporters.
Opposition MP Joseph Michael Perera told parliament that the attacks were carried out by a `special team` controlled by Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.
Mr. Perera said the government should arrest the offenders and `immediately bring them to justice`.
The army has denied that it is any way involved in attacks on journalists.
`We are told by those in the army itself that journalists are abducted and subjected to grievous injury by none other than a special unit under the army commander,` Mr. Perera, a former parliamentary speaker, said.`
It will be interesting to know what the UNP has got to say about this allegation now. Does it stand by it? If not, it will have to admit that it misled Parliament, the people of this country and the international community with the aforesaid statement.
Be that as it may, we, journalists, do not need either Rajapaksa or Fonseka to defend us. All we need is the restoration of the rule of law in this post-war period so that all citizens including media personnel will be able to live free from fear and harm. It is only in a free society that a free press could exist.
The best service that politicians of the ruling party and the Opposition could render to journalists is to let them be. Please!