The Sunday Leader

Beware: Freedom Of The Electronic Wild Ass

  • In Sri Lanka too, the media has been a kingmaker since Independence albeit success has not always ensued
  • Sri Lankans have a tendency to treat those with criminal histories and potential with indulgence, especially if he is an ‘innocent village boy’
  • Of course the traditional media will keep distorting news in traditional ways
by Gamini Weerakoon


Kingmakers of America who had been on the political stage for long years flexing their muscles at the powerful and mighty had a nasty fall from grace on November 8 when the unpredictable billionaire Donald Trump routed their favourite candidate in the presidential election that took all by surprise.

After Trump’s victory it appears that much of the power the media wielded is waning. They have lost their credibility. Problems are growing and last week American media was trying to combat ‘fake news’- absolutely cooked up news being dished out to the public, particularly by the social media and was being believed by very many.


Fallout on Lanka

The fallout of the results of the American election in Sri Lanka is not known but with the interest shown by Sri Lankans on what went on in the United States presidential election, access to cable TV networks and especially the interest evinced by Sri Lanka’s social media, the after effects could have a tremendous political repercussions.

In Sri Lanka too, the media has been a kingmaker since Independence albeit success has not always ensued.

In the first eight years, with the media comprising the two main newspaper groups – Lake House and the Times of Ceylon Group and the solitary state owned radio station, Radio Ceylon – all unreservedly backing the UNP, they won the 1948 and 1952 elections.

In 1956 S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike did a Donald Trump. He won with all the established media working against him – not one institution in support. If Trump won with the aid of the new social media, Bandaranaike won with an old established medium in Lanka: the oral tradition – dissemination of news by word of mouth. This tradition stood well for Bandaranaike’s party even after his death with his party doing considerably well at elections not having support and instead of being opposed strongly by the established media. In 1977 J. R. Jayewardene too won a sweeping electoral victory with the established media at that time the state owned press and radio – opposing him tooth and nail.


Enter the electronic dragon

The first election where the role electronics in Lankan elections came into question was when the common opposition presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka was defeated and those who expected him to be the winner alleged that there was a ‘Computer Jillmart’.

TV and other ‘electronic media’ – videos, cell phones, internet and the social media – since then are steadily making their presence felt in the political scene.  At the last presidential election with the state media under full control of the Rajapaksa regime, some ‘Independent’ newspapers bending over backwards towards the regime for favours granted and to be granted, and journalists running scared of White Vans, the Opposition resorted to this electronic media very much.

With the Joint Opposition commencing their election campaign on the very day President Sirisena was sworn in, this electronic war has been on and gathering momentum.

Of course the Yahapalanaya side too has the same opportunities to resort to electronic skullduggery. Thus, will future elections see the Freedom of the Electronic Ass in full force?

The infinite capacity of this Electronic Ass to destroy the democratic process through fake news is now being witnessed in the United States.


Fake News

Last Sunday (4/12), 28-year-old Edgar Madison Welt walked into a pizzeria in Washington DC and fired an automatic rifle twice or thrice on being enraged by reports that went viral in the social media that Hilary Clinton and her Campaign manager John Podesta were running a child sex ring at the pizzeria. This story had been consistently repeated for quite some time with the owner of the pizzeria and employees receiving severe death threats. The gunman had come to investigate the reports and in the process of investigation fired his gun. Fortunately no one was injured, reports said.

This story illustrates the immense destructive potential that this new media can have on our democratic process as well, although our countries are far apart.

Sri Lankans have a tendency to treat those with criminal histories and potential with indulgence, especially if he is an ‘innocent village boy’ (Gamme Kolla). Recently we witnessed a 17-year-old schoolboy, who hacked into the president’s official web site, being treated with some indulgence and some in the media treating him as a Sri Lankan genius.

This is not surprising considering the treatment accorded to the notorious Sepala Ekanayake who hijacked an Alitalia Boeing 707 with 340 passengers. He was ‘appe kolla’ to some in the media and acquired the status of a folk hero.

Our boys have shown a genius for rigging electronic gadgetry and their talents may be much in demand at forthcoming elections. This of course is ominous to Sri Lankan democracy.

Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya is scheduled to retire soon with plaudits all round ringing in his ears and it will be the challenge to his successor to meet this electronic threat, not just ensuring the counting of votes but also election propaganda where even a poster on a wall or a cut-out placed in a public place is considered an offence.


Traditional ways

Of course the traditional media will keep distorting news in traditional ways. For example the painstaking efforts of the FCID in tracking misuse of official vehicles worth millions to billion dollar mega frauds have been compared with actions of the Gestapo. Were suspects wanted by the Nazi regime given luxury vehicles bought at state expense to attend inquiries into their alleged crimes and be driven back home in style or be remanded in teak paneled hospital rooms with nurses at their beck and call?Even though we are far from being admirers of the legendary FBI Chief Edgar J. Hoover, we find his quotation apt to those protesting against political arrests in Lanka today:

‘The minute the FBI begins making recommendations on what should be done with its information collected, it becomes a Gestapo’.

2 Comments for “Beware: Freedom Of The Electronic Wild Ass”

  1. Anne

    When are we going to have statesman and not stage actors?

  2. Upali Gunasekara

    Very well written article containing absolute truth! People fear to criticise media, the fourth state. As the legend says doctors’ mistakes are buried. What about media’s mistakes. Also buried! We are for ever being bullied by false media propaganda, done for and on behalf of politicoes. The writer has opened our eyes to see thru and identify what is propaganda and what is NEWS!- Thank you Mr Weerakoon, well done!

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