Several media outfits have joined forces to ask the presidential candidates to declare their strong and unequivocal commitment to the protection of freedom of expression and information.
The media have come under threats under successive governments. Television stations, publishing houses and media personnel have been attacked and several journalists killed. So, it may be argued that there is a pressing need for media organisations to demand that presidential candidates make known how they propose to create an environment where journalists as well other members of society could exercise their freedom of expression and right to information.
However, we are sceptical about political pledges regardless of who makes them. For, in the run-up to a crucial election where stakes are extremely high for the main contenders, anything will be promised.
Let it be explained why we are so sceptical, if not pessimistic, about creating conditions for a free media culture with the help of politicians. There have been several attacks on journalists and media institutions under the present political dispensation and not a single incident has so far been investigated properly. That no one has been brought to justice goes without saying. Several journalists have fled the country because of threats to their lives. The most prominent journalist to perish at the hands of goons under the present government was The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga, whose first death anniversary fell last week with his killers still at large. Media rights groups, it may be recalled, turned Lasantha`s funeral procession into a protest march of sorts shouting as they did anti-government slogans. They also laid the blame for his killing at President Mahinda Rajapaksa`s doorstep.
Ironically, among those who attended Lasantha`s first death anniversary the other day were some politicians who once stood accused of being behind attacks on Lasantha and his press. One of the organisers of the event, Mangala Samaraweera, MP was the Media Minister of President Chandrika Kumaratunga`s government which was blamed for assaulting Lasantha and his wife and bombing his house. The Kumaratunga government also sealed his press for political reasons.
Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was a prominent minister of the Premadasa government blamed for abducting and assassinating Richard de Zoysa. The then UNP government stooped to the level of vilifying Richard posthumously. Under the Wickremesinghe government (2001-2004) two of our journalists had to go into hiding following a witch hunt the UNF launched against them over an article they had written.
JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe`s presence at media functions evokes our dreadful memories of the JVP`s reign of terror (1987-89), which resulted in the killing of several veteran journalists. The JVP sparrow units gunned down popular television and radio personality Premakeerthi de Alwis and electronic media guru Thevis Guruge. We have Amerasinghe pontificating on media rights at present!
When the media came under a spate of attacks under the present government, Chief Opposition Whip and UNP MP Joseph Michael Perera speaking in Parliament in July 2008 held the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka responsible for them. BBC reported him thus on July 28, 2008:
`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.`
But, today Perera and the UNP are all out to make Fonseka President! The UNP either lied to Parliament or does not give two hoots about what happens to the media in trying to further its short term political interests.
When Associate Editor of The Nation Keith Noyahr was abducted and tortured in May, 2008, the army came under fire from the media and the Opposition. In the aftermath of the attack, The Nation Editor told President Mahinda Rajapaksa at an editors` meeting at Temple Trees that he and his journalists had to live in eternal fear of the military intelligence, which kept The Nation office under surveillance. He said suspicious looking vehicles including trishaws were sighted around his work place.
In January, 2009, Editor of the sister paper of The Nation, the Rivira, Upali Tennakoon was assaulted in broad daylight in Gampaha. The weapons his assailants wielded were identical to those used to kill Lasantha! Upali had a miraculous escape. The army was blamed for that dastardly attempt on Upali`s life. Both Keith and Upali are living abroad.
It is a supreme irony that the CEO of the Rivira publications at that time, Krishantha Cooray, is now campaigning for presidential candidate Fonseka, who, in a recent statement to The Sunday Leader, took the full responsibility for everything that the army had done during his tenure!
However, that others are also responsible for killing of journalists and other forms of attacks on the media does not extenuate the culpability of the present government in any way. It will remain a suspect, as we have been arguing umpteen times in these columns, until the perpetrators are brought to justice.
The track record of governments, Oppositions and their leaders being so dismal as regards the media, how can we expect any politician to make a sincere commitment to the protection of the freedom of expression and right to information?