The Sunday Leader

A Silenced Media

Last week a story on the front page of a daily English newspaper caught my eye.  Not for its content but for the sheer absurdity of such a story having made headlines on the front page of a newspaper.
This was the story: Manioc stolen from Horogolla. The article went on to say that some 475 kilograms of manioc cultivated by Sunethra Bandaranaike had been stolen from the Bandaranaike walauwwa.
Never mind that people continue to get abducted almost every week –  post war, the fact that the Bandaranaikes’ lost manioc from their walauwwa makes front page news.
Even after the fighting has  stopped the media situation in Sri Lanka remains precarious. The government, last year, banned 45 news websites
The government slogan during the war,  “either you are with us or against us”, had been transcended and transferred to the local press who wary of any backlash have instead decided to play – safe. Very safe.
Journalists looking into even the more mundane stories – post war – investigating government corruption or wrongdoing find themselves in dangerous territory.  Journalists are in danger.  Journalism is at risk.
Journalists are still being targeted.  Prageeth Eknaligoda remains missing.  Then in July last year Uthayan news editor Gnasundaram Kuganathan was targeted.  He was subjected to a brutal attack. His perpetrators are yet to be found.
The war and its aftermath are still treacherous subjects to write on.   Journalists speaking on them continue to hide their voices and their identity.  There is a very high degree of self censorship being practiced and still a culture of fear that pervades the print media – preventing it from going into issues that may bring them harm.  That leaves such reporting to foreign news outlets.
Britain’s Channel 4 has been prominent with its coverage on Sri Lankan soldiers allegedly conducting atrocities on Tamil prisoners of war. The coverage has blown government rhetoric that what happened in the north was a clean humanitarian operation. The exposures have had an impact and as a result the West has been accused of being “jealous” of the Sri Lankan government.
For two years since the war ended the internet provided a platform – to a handful of Sri Lankan critics of the war. Through various means the government has been able to control the local media.  On the one hand the government controls its domestic news agenda through its allies while on the other independent senior editors and staff are given financial and political benefits to achieve the same goal by other means.
The general public is reluctant to speak about the travails that affect the media. Or they simply do not care.  Or care enough.
A government having won a civil war in the North is currently in control of its media.  There is a cultural impunity which is damaging Sri Lankan society and as a  consequence damaging the Sri Lankan media.
There are huge issues currently dominating Sri Lanka – yet the media in toto remains silent.  Sri Lanka’s media coerced into silence cannot unite to speak out on issues such as killings and abductions.  Last year, a list was tabled on the killings, attacks and abductions in Jaffna.
A 30-year-old male from Jaffna was found beaten and hanged to death at a playground in Achchuveli Thoappu in Valikaamam East, 20 km northeast of Jaffna city. The victim had been harassed by the Sri Lanka Army intelligence operatives 2 years ago, residents in the area said. So far no suspects have been taken into custody.
Why does the media continue to be silent on the attack on TNA MPs at a local government election meeting?
On June 16, 2011 armed army personnel in full uniform attacked a meeting of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in Alaveddy, relating to the upcoming local authority elections at which 5 TNA MPs were present. This was an internal party meeting that did not require police permission. Several MSD personnel of the MPs were also assaulted. Major General Walgama, who initially met the MPs soon after the incident, requested that the MPs refrain from lodging a complaint with the police, and further, that they ensure that the incident was not reported through the media. The MPs, however, did not agree to this and proceeded to make statements to the Police.
The incident also was reported to both Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe and the President. Major General Hathurusinghe initially issued a statement that this was a minor incident involving the army and the MSD personnel, but later claimed that he had been misquoted and assured the TNA MPs that if this was done by the army, he would take stern disciplinary action.
On June 20, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa confirmed in an interview to the Island newspaper, that in fact the army had stopped the meeting. No action has been taken thus far.
Every activity that takes place in the North and East first requires approval by the Presidential Task Force and the military.
Why does the media not collectively question this?
M. A. Sumanthiran TNA MP has reiterated that lists of beneficiaries for identified projects in the north  have to be sent to the military. Incidents have been reported of the military altering these to include individuals they prefer for such assistance.

Several families are unable to return to their homes due to the official and unofficial High Security Zone (HSZ) restrictions in areas in the North and East. Large areas of land have been taken by the military for camps and ad hoc HSZs in Thirumurigandi, Shanthapuram and Indupuram, covering the districts of Mullativu and Killinochchi. These HSZs also prevent/severely restrict, access to an unfettered livelihood.
Churches and private property are being occupied by the military in Jaffna, Mannar, and Mullaitivu.
Regular checking by the military takes place in many areas in the Jaffna, Killinochchi and Mullativu districts. Are not these issues for the local media to highlight consistently ? Are these not what make front page news and NOT the fact that the Bandaranaike waluwwa lost 475 kilograms of manioc?
Most advertisements/signboards on the A9 road from Omanthai to Jaffna are in Sinhala. 28 Buddhist statues were brought into the Palaly High Security Zone. Not news?
A significant number of Buddhist stupas/temples have come up on the A9 road, Paranthan, Kilinochchi, near the 561 division, next to Iranamadu tank, etc., What is wrong with us? Can we not see that we are trampling – stomping on the dignity of Tamils – post war? Why are we silent? Are we not supposed to be the watchdogs of this nation?
Sumanthiran maintains that Sinhalese fishermen are occupying padus belonging to Tamil fishermen in Vadamaarachchi East, thus denying them access to it.
Tiles and door frames of houses belonging to those who have been resettled in Vadamaarachchi East after the conflict, have been taken and used in Navy camps. So it is alleged.
The navy is occupying lands in Mullikulam, Vidathaltivu, Silavathurai, and Sannar, preventing people from resettling there. Approximately 200 families are affected due to this in Mullikulam alone. 3524 Acres of land has been taken for the Army camp at Sannar.
The other places where the Army has taken over land are, Paapamoddai, Parappukkadanthan, Nindavil, Kalliyadi, Savarikulam and Kovilkulam.
Similarly, the Police has taken over lands in Iluppaikkadavai, Adampa, Vidathaltivu, Paapamoddai, Vellikulam and Paaliyaru
Why do we, the press remain silent on these issues?  Has Mahinda Rajapaksa been this successful in beating the media into submission? Clearly, the answer is a softly whispered – Yes.
Name boards with new Sinhala names have been fixed in several streets in Kilinochchi. When travelling from Jeyapuram to Pallavaraayankattu, near the Jayapuram junction, there are 2 streets named ‘Mahinda Rajapakse Mawatha’ and ‘Aluth Mawatha’.
These are only 2 examples of several such name boards. Police posts are situated near these boards to ensure they are protected. These boards are situated in the back streets of Kilinochchi to prevent the media from being alerted to this trend.
Buddhist symbols were buried in the area in which the Kilinochchi market used to be. Claims are now being made that they are archeological finds from over 2000 years .
There have been several attempts to both create various ‘societies’ and to stage Sinhala cultural events in the area.
The military is in occupation of several areas in Pooneryn. This includes the Pooneryn hospital. Why is this not an issue for the press?
Are these not matters of national importance that should dominate the pages of our newspapers, and radio and television broadcasts? Is the label of ‘traitor’ too terrifying to be called to take on these issues that we as the media are only duty bound to do so? What of the issue of land grabs? Not only is it rampant in the North and East – namely places like – Batticaloa, Sampur, Vavunathivu, Chenkalady and Vaharai where  almost 1050 acres of land belonging to the Sri Lanka Cashew Corporation is being utilized for the purpose of establishing a naval base, but it is happening right here in Colombo too. Right under our noses. If only we care to look . For example 680 perches of prime land at Bauddhaloka Mawatha has been allocated to the Russian Embassy to build a new complex in a mafia style case where the land has clearly been forcefully taken from its rightful owners. Read more on that story, as well as another land grab in the Kotte Municipality, in these pages next week.
We need to focus more on the economy. Elsewhere on these pages today we carry an article which highlights a multi billion rupee borrowing – nearly 400 billion rupees of it already spent – a part of loans obtained from the Chinese state-owned Export-Import bank.
Sri Lanka has come at a dismal 163rd  in the Press Freedom Index 2011/2012. It has dropped from its previous position at 158 in 2010.
In a nutshell this is what it means. The latest world press freedom index contains sombre realities and confirms certain trends.  Unlike  before, it is clear that in Sri Lanka economic development, institutional reform and respect for fundamental rights do not necessarily go hand in hand. The defence of media freedom is at stake with a dormant and pliant media refusing to do battle.
That is President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s biggest triumph next to winning the civil war. He has beaten to the ground the local press who will no longer voice the oppression and injustices that continue to take place in this island nation.

7 Comments for “A Silenced Media”

  1. Observator Srilanka

    Can we make Srilankan “Democracy” to this “American” “Democracy” , definitely, if foolish village uneducated voters understand the “Difference”

    Good afternoon,

    Today, I was in Michigan. Yesterday, it was Colorado and Nevada. Before that, it was Iowa and Arizona. The day after I delivered my State of the Union Address to Congress, I took off to connect with ordinary Americans around the country, talk more about our Blueprint for an America Built to Last, and get some feedback.

    That’s why I’m writing you.

    On Monday we’re going to do something a little different. At 5:30 p.m. ET, I’ll walk into the Roosevelt Room across the hall from the Oval Office, take a seat, and kick-off the first-ever completely virtual town hall from the White House.

    All week, people have been voting on questions and submitting their own, and a few of them will join me for a live chat.

    What do you want to ask me?

    This is going to be an exciting way to talk about the steps that we need to take together at this make-or-break moment for the middle class.

    We have to foster a new era for American manufacturing — rewarding companies for keeping jobs here at home and eliminating tax breaks for those who ship jobs overseas. We have to invest in homegrown energy in the United States — starting with an all-out, all-of-the-above energy strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs. We have to build an economy that works for everyone — where every hard working American gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and the rules are the same from top to bottom.

    I’m ready to get started, but I know you have questions and ideas for ways to help. So let’s hear them:


    President Barack Obama

  2. Ruwan

    About time!!!!! FJ we need more articles from you!!!!

  3. Brian

    Thats it Boss tell it like it is, UNBOWED AND UNAFRAID. Trust me one strong woman.

  4. response

    Very cool article.

  5. Panduka

    Very well chronicled, Leader. Taken together with the contents and substance of today’s editorial, there is more to be questioned than whether the Lankan public cares, or cares sufficiently, about the travails of the Lankan media. The other part of that question is whether the Lankan public is simply reluctant due to sheer fear of government reprisal to speak out for the media, and for themselves!

    Either way, it poses serious questions about the state of Lanka today. A free and unfettered media, [a very shaky variety of which we saw up until the time that the late Lasantha Wickramatunga could write in these very columns, decrying the bombing of Lankan citizens by order of the Lankan government], is the crucial bulwark against authoritarianism that ideally sustains a democracy. [Through the evolution of its etymology, the fourth estate, came to be the media, and more esecially, the print media].

    Since the first 3 estates in a modern democracy must mean the executive, legislature and the judiciary, all of whom represent the ‘people,’ replacing the original Church, nobility and commoners triad of Christian Europe, the evolution of the Lankan state from precolonial to post colonial times, and to the present date, would be an interesting study, for many reasons.

    It is ironical that the news item about the theft of manioc relates to the Bandranaikes, as the late Premier’s 1970-77 government was known for its ultra nationalistic and closed economic experiments, which promoted the growth and consumption of manioc and sweet potatoes, with restrictions being placed on the transport, and even, consumption, of rice.

    The crux of these two journalistic pieces, is of course, the state of democracy in Lanka, at present. If the editorial’s reference to the degree of interference that politics, with special reference to those in government, has had on the sport of cricket, is any indication, then, taken together with the ‘land-grabbing,’ and the fear which prevents ordinary citizens, and even captains of national teams, from speaking openly, and the extent to which the free media has been cowtowed to merely reporting ‘manioc’ thefts, can only prompt the question ‘For whom does the Lankan State exist?’

    At the cost of repetition ad nauseam, one cannot but help referring to those worthies like the late Rt Hon DS Senanayake, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, and Hon Dudley Senanayake, and the wonderful people who adorned the cabinets and parliaments of those times, and wonder why, oh why, did that beautiful patch of history, where we saw a near true blending, not only of all components of Lankan society within, but also, a blending of the best of east and west, that produced truly national leaders and representatives and citizens who demonstrated national love, within the broader humanitarian and global context, have to pass so early?

    It is noteworthy that the editorial deals with education and the universities, and the decline of education in those in parliament, and their failure to treat adult undergrads with due deference, the deference that one would show one’s own offspring as they mature beyond their teens. The plaque at the entrance to the Senate building of Peradeniya Uni would still show the Duke of Edinburgh’s words, wishing that those worthy halls be ‘more open than usual.’ If Prince Phillip’s reference was to the shopkeepers of Britain who kept them open despite the German threats is true, then it is no less relevant, and important for the education establishment, as it seeks to retain its vitality, its independence, and its relevance in nation building, to take heed.

    The openness in the Lankan context could have well included the openness between the communities, as well as, the openness between its history and its present, and that between itself, and the world, not to even mention, that between its governments and the people! All this makes sense only within a well ordered politcal entity. The type of possibility and order that is obviously being prevented from evolving, by some who’d use the military victory [over a terrorist outfit that was itself, the creation of a festering wound that successive governments had failed to address wholesomely], to stretch itself in very narrow terms, as its economic and socio-political management is increasingly shown up as deficient.

    The beginning of the loss of that well-ordered polity that Lanka was, from before, and between 1931 and the 1950s, began with the late Bandaranaike Premier’s dabbling with selective history, selected members of the clergy, and the economy, to pander to very narrow considerations of ‘who we were.’ That we missed the essence of being ‘a part of the main,’ and finding a new and wholesome national identity, ever since, and with each new aberration, be it post 1977, 1994, or 2005, we have yet to have a worthy set of people in power to recast this land in a noble mould.

    As relevant as Frederica’s question to media personnel is, and the softly spoken answer ‘Yes,’ the whole nation is seemed to have been beaten into submission by the present rulers, then we need to ask ourselves what do we do about it, and wether the next time around, are we prepared to tell any and every political party that nominates less than desirables as aspiring peoples’ representatives, at both, local and national elections, ‘No,’ we will not vote en masse, for them, let us have better substitutes…go back to proper national planning, and treat your citizenry with due respect…

    Thank you, Leader, for two eye-opening pieces of excellent journalism!

  6. kumudini

    Could you please give statistics of any Sinhala being resetteld in these areas??

    what happened to the lands that were in Sinhala hands , ? This will be usefull and interesting to know .

  7. sir elapatha

    what is wrong is wrong.govt.having lot of problem every day which tarnish their image,victorious image as they think.abductions,torture,killing witout traces,as you say,done not only authorities,in mass scale done by LTTE fo trhee decades,media and opposition politicos act blind as a habit.i wonder why sudden rising of media to cry about these bad ever\ com to good and honest people.sri lanka police is the worst and currupted law enforcement in world.but to target army for every happening here annot accept.

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