Our national trait of punishing the messenger dates back to time immemorial. Those who ran errands for ancient kings ran the risk of having their noggins chopped off for no fault of theirs if the tidings they brought were not to the royalty`s liking. The tradition continues and messengers perish at a rate today.
On Wednesday, in Parliament messengers were hauled over the coals for reporting a minister`s statement that the Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had been roughed up at a stormy UNP parliamentary group meeting in a committee room the previous day. Minister Jagath Pushpakumara had claimed that the UNP leader was in danger and requested the Speaker to ensure his safety. The minister s statement was published.
Later the UNP denied the occurrence of any such incident and flayed Minister Pushpakumara for having misled the House and the media. Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara`s reaction was to ask journalists to desist from reporting remarks and statements by members whose microphones were not switched on. He warned that defiance would be met with the cancellation of parliamentary passes issued to the media institutions concerned!
The Speaker is the king of his House and his authority to adopt measures to run it the way he deems proper cannot be impugned. We also appreciate the Speaker`s difficulties in running Parliament. He, in our book, richly deserves the Nobel Prize for carrying out that arduous task and a special allowance for risking his sanity. It is his bounden duty to prevent distortion of facts and expunge anything he considers too objectionable to be in the public domain. He also has every right to deal with irresponsible reportage as regards Parliament.
But, even at the risk of treading the minefield of parliamentary privileges, it needs to be pointed out that complications arising from his order are likely to run counter to the media freedom and people`s right to information.
It is not rarely that honourable members enact fish market scenes in the House hurling abuse and liberally delivering knuckle sandwich. They even forcibly remove documents from the Speaker`s table and run away with the mace. Once, a government MP stooped to the level of roughing up MP monks during an unholy scrimmage. Ruckuses are also not uncommon with almost all MPs yipping, yapping and yelping all at once creating a raucous din. If the `microphone rule` were to be strictly enforced, what would be the position of the media in such a situation? That may serve as censorship in all but name and therefore amount to a gross denial of people`s right to information on what goes on in Parliament, which is maintained with their money.
Last July, it may be recalled, while a confidence vote was being debated in the Indian Parliament, the Opposition lawmakers went on the rampage bellowing as they did anti-Congress slogans. They sat on the floor waving wads and wads of banknotes, which, they claimed, had been offered to them by way of bribes to secure their support for the government`s nuclear deal with the US. Their statements got wide publicity and the Indian electors` right to information was not infringed upon.
Parliament does no favour as such to the media by issuing passes to cover its proceedings. The media acts as the ears, eyes and mouths of the public who pay taxes to maintain politicians and Parliament. The media, however flawed it may be, remains a strong pillar of democracy. On the other hand, parliamentarians cannot reach out to the people through the public gallery or the Hansard alone. It is only through the media that they can do so easily and effectively. So, the parliamentary passes, we believe, should not be used as a bludgeon to frighten the media into submission.
There is a huge public outcry against deteriorating parliamentary standards. Even the incumbent Speaker, a veteran politician himself, has lamented on several occasions about the sorry state of affairs in Parliament. After some government and Opposition MPs turned a budget vote into a mini battle in 2007, the incumbent Speaker said what he had experienced was nothing but terrorism. Intellectual thrust and parry of yore have given way to slanging matches and fisticuffs. Some MPs conduct themselves in such a way that small school children cannot sit in the public gallery when they take the floor. It was only the other day that Minister Mano Wijeratne had to remind two warring MPs of the presence of children in the gallery.
The quorum bell, as we said in these columns recently, rarely gets a rest because MPs are more out than in even during debates of national importance. UNP MP Lakshman Kiriella, irked by the chronic lack of quorum a few days ago remarked that some MPs came to Parliament only to partake of subsidised food! Minister Tissa Karaliyadda, who happened to address a large number of empty seats in the House recently, suggested that the Parliamentary complex be converted into an international Ayurvedic hospital to attract the much needed foreign exchange! Reflected in these remarks is the consternation of senior parliamentarians at what has befallen the national legislature.
Restrictions on media coverage of Parliament will prove to be counterproductive as the beneficiaries will be errant politicians. The best antidote to the rot Parliament is afflicted with, we believe, is to expose the misbehaving members. So, instead of putting the media in a straitjacket, we venture to suggest, parliamentary proceedings must be telecast live for people to see their representatives for what they really are.
In the alternative, sittings may be held in camera and a doctored report on proceedings, which conforms to so to speak nihil obstat of the parliamentary bigwigs issued to the media at the end of the day.
Whenever an attempt is made to lay the media on the Procrustean bed of imperiousness, it is democracy that suffers.