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Peace Must Bring Democratic Values And An Independent Media Culture

“Peace is not only better than war, but infinitely more arduous.”  —George Bernard Shaw

It is now risible to apologise for state-sponsored violence and the curbing of media freedom on the basis that they are unimportant mistakes committed in the newness of peace which will be soon remedied once the regime becomes better organise the targeting of journalists has continued unabated; On Wednesday, July 8, it will be six months since Lasantha Wickrematunge the Founder Editor-in-Chief of this newspaper was murdered: his killers remain at large. 

Since Lasantha’s brutal assassination the systematic erosion of the fundamental rights of those who are deemed enemies of the coterie in power has deepened and worsened. The extermination of suspects within police custody, allegedly as a result of their attempts to escape, has proliferated. In all of these cases, there appears to be no recourse to the rule of law, no redress from within the politico-administrative system. In this respect whistle-blowers and human rights activists are deemed to be the worst enemies of the state.

There is no excuse of ‘war or terrorism’ any more to justify the curtailing of fundamental rights. There is no alibi of imminent threat to democratic freedoms and principles from those beyond the pale which can be used to rationalise violence and the suspension of normal law through emergency regulations. There can be no validity to the continuance of the PTA and other draconian legislation enacted ostensibly to contain terrorism and civil war but used against other targets as well. In short, all the preconditions for the establishment and maintenance of the rule or law are now in place, and credit must go to President Rajapakse and his regime for the creation of these conditions. 

Not all of us agree with the methods that were employed, nor do we condone the carnage that the final phase of the conflict engendered. Yet, from the point of view of immediate concerns relating to fundamental freedoms, now all that is water under the bridge, and we too are impatient that the people of this country – irrespective of ethnicity, religion, language, location, social class, gender and profession – become able to reap the benefits of this sea change. The Sunday Leader remains committed to the values of its Founding Editor who paid the supreme sacrifice for his belief that the duty of a newspaper is to act as watchdog against corruption, nepotism, abuse of power, the violation of fundamental rights and systematic discrimination.

We at The Leader do not expect that our vision will be endorsed equally by everyone. Yet, all we ask is for our right to be heard, for the broadening of democratic space of responsible dissent, where the informed public can decide on the basis of news and commentary provided by a diverse  and professional mass media. Instead, the norm has become sycophancy and utterly uncritical reportage that endorses anything and everything undertaken by the political leadership in this country.

This situation has been gravely compounded by serious and systematic threats to media persons who do not toe the line. All those who do not blow the trumpet of this regime and its various satellite operations face intimidation, threats, incarceration and even violence, in an organised and persistent way by shadowy and not-so shadowy figures who live charmed lives in the sense that they are never apprehended, never constrained, never ever punished. Media persons are abducted, assaulted, even assassinated, and all that happens is an endless and endlessly fruitless series of “investigations” that are designed to let everyone know that if the state is not directly responsible, it shares common cause with those who are.

Sri Lanka has been crowned as one of the worst places in the world for media freedom, with a steadily increasing total of 50 documented abductions on journalists and 11 deaths during the past four years alone. Threats and intimidation of media professionals are legion. Despite hollow claims by the government that ‘investigations are underway,’ not a single arrest and prosecution has resulted in any case related to these attacks. The proof of tacit government approval cannot be stronger. No longer is the usual lip service even paid by government ministers in support of media freedom and independence. On the contrary, apparently not satisfied with the increasing violence against both individuals and institutions related to the media, the government seems to want anti-democratic regulations and legal provisions to further gag the press. 

The recent decision to revive the Press Council is a case in point. Previous regimes have not invoked this draconian legislation at times which, arguably, had greater justification in terms of national security. Now, when we are told ad nauseam, that the country is freed from terror and war, now when we should be looking to collectively rebuild and rehabilitate all that was lost due to the protracted conflict, this is the worst possible time to introduce fear and censorship to the mass media. 

In short, there has never been a time less appropriate to do so, or a political conjuncture with less justification for any form of curtailment of the freedom of expression and the right to information. “National Security” is no longer under threat, we are no longer waging a bloody war against terrorism, and yet the government seeks precisely this moment when there should be the greatest possible openness and accountability, the highest levels of transparency and unfettered public dialogue, to muzzle and constrain the public’s right to know and to participate in decisions about its future.

The bogey of support for the LTTE is invoked with predictable regularity to pre-empt any form of constructive criticism and to ensure servility. The most recent instance of the arrest of an astrologer because his predictions were anti-government underlines the ridiculous extents that this regime is willing to go to in order to stifle what it perceives as threats to its hegemony.

This, then, is a crucial last chance for the government to establish its bona fides as well as to lead this country out of catastrophe to democratic development. To this end President Rajapakse and his party must ensure the prosecution of those who have taken the law into their hands and committed heinous crimes against journalists. They must send a clear and unequivocal message that a new climate of openness and transparency is being ushered in. This should involve holding their own leaders and supporters accountable for their brutal and blatant physical attacks against the media. This is the minimal proof of the government’s good intentions, and if none of this happens, the state’s failure to rise above petty rent-seeking and cheap rhetoric may well lead to Sri Lanka remaining a failed state.









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