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World Affairs








White Van dominates the media debate

Anura Priyadarshana Yapa
and Gayantha Karunathileke

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
Our Lobby Correspondent

The media everywhere is divided, and so it is in Sri Lanka. It is divided as state and private first, local and foreign, then separated as print, electronic and web, and further categorised based on the language in which they operate.

All of the above differences, far too many to ignore, could be considered the reason for the media's lack of solidarity and deep division. But when it comes to their collective dislike for Labour Minister Mervyn Silva, they appear to shed all their differences.

That came about after hooligans' associated with Silva went on the rampage inside the Rupavahini Corporation premises last December, a fact the opposition's opening speaker Gayantha Karunathileke did not forget to mention at the very outset when speaking during the votes on the Ministry of Media and Information on Thursday.

The MP averred that when Silva became visible, peaceful journalists generally happy to deal with cameras and pen tended to act in self-defence and discover violence they were incapable of before. "That's the kind of negative inspiration the dubious doctor has," said Karunathileke, earning opposition laughter and appreciative smiles from those in the media gallery.

In a blistering attack on the government's conduct towards the media, Karunathileke said when the 'friend of the media' ascended power promising the right to have access to information and depoliticise the state media, journalists had to learn to deal with political victimisation, exclusion of opposition in state media and high risk to life.

"He promised tax free motorbikes and duty free computers but instead sends white vans to the houses of scribes. He promised recognition for excellence, and the only rewards were abductions, threats, knife jabs and suppression. Foreign scholarships were pledged to further careers but journalists are fleeing to protect their lives under this 'media friendly' executive," scoffed Karunathileke.

As Karunathileke spoke of self appointed media ombudsman walking into state television houses and receiving treatment that should have been heaped on such persons decades ago, up jumped Minister Mervyn Silva to interrupt the MP, alleging that he could not be so easily silenced.

Non Cabinet Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene tried to play the terrific record down as he said there were 5,700 accredited journalists but less than 50 had expressed difficulties with just 14 having complaints that are investigated on their behalf.

"This country is experiencing civil disturbances. Media does not operate in a vacuum. The prevailing conditions get reflected in the media and they too get exposed to high risk," he conceded.

Seeking to score points, he said the Information Department facilitated 650 local and 350 foreign journalists during the SAARC Summit and claimed that there was progress that was never spoken of.

Strongly defending the media's right to free expression was JVP's Sunil Handunnetti who said that what journalists perceived should be allowed to be expressed. "We as a society breathe through them. Even when we don't agree with what they say, we must allow that to happen. People have a right to information, even biased interpretations. A government has no business to meddle with that right," he said warning that administrations that sought to intervene have been promptly returned to opposition benches by the people.

Handunnetti referring to the ugly SLRC spectacle a year ago when Mervyn Silva was given a bath of 'Dulux' paint, said: "What happened that day was repeated today. The ugly show was repeated as a mini show while the previous speaker spoke. The ministers remained tightlipped and unable to stop the erratic behaviour. The media personnel in the gallery were heard openly laughing at a people's representative whose very name is anathema to the public."

Importantly, he drew the ministers' collective attention to the fact that the Information Department had workers who had not been promoted in 27 long years. "What kind of motivation is that," he asked, and Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa immediately stood up to agree that he had only learned recently about such instances and promised to rectify them.

Minister Dilan Perera tried to dredge the past and remind both the UNP and the JVP of their own awful records of protecting media freedom. He mentioned the famous Richard de Soyza murder to start with, but clearly forgot that while the then UNP administration condemned Soyza as a traitor for exposing the human rights violations that prevailed, Perera's very government was meting out the same treatment to journalists who do what Soyza did then - expose rights violations

Perera quite rightly said those living in glass houses should not throw stones at others and stressed that not just the state, but also all media institutions had their own brand of politics and an agenda to boot.

"Don't colour this debate. Come up with honest criticism. Be analytical and not vicious," called Perera.

Portraying the gravity of the threats faced by media practitioners was M.Ariyanethran.  He said due to the conflict and the resultant violence, many journalists both Tamil and Sinhalese have been killed.

"Some 29 journalists have fled the country last year seeking asylum overseas. Why did we create a situation where they cannot peacefully do their job? They flee not for anything else but because they come under threat due to the profession they practice," noted the TNA legislator.

Expressing concern about the ranking Sri Lanka has received as one of the worst places for journalists to live, he said Sri Lanka indeed had a media hostile culture at present.

Ariyanethran's sobering thoughts were followed by a man journalists love to hate, Labour Minister Mervyn Silva who considered himself qualified to judge the quality of media and to call those that did not find favour with him, as practitioners of 'yellow journalism.'

"Sympathisers and beneficiaries of yellow journalism spoke from the opposition ranks today," he declared with a flourish.

He said the state media institutions were currently being headed by iconic media persons who were gifted and with illustrious careers. "I have always celebrated good journalists and good journalism. But there are those who destroy this country's value system, and I am talking about the likes of Sirasa," he said, shamelessly using his parliamentary privileges to abuse the president and secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), dubbing them as 'non journalists.'

The fact that media was full of negative portrayals that impacted negatively on society was the point pursued by JHP Parliamentarian, Ven. Dr. Kotapola Amarakitti.

"The family structure is collapsing in Sri Lanka. In 2008, out of the cases filed in all courts numbering 18,000 some 12,800 were divorce plaints," lamented the monk claiming there was moral decline in society for which the media was responsible for continuous negative portrayals.

Closing the debate for the opposition was Kurunegala District UNP legislator Dayasiri Jayasekera. Running a list of achievements during the two-year UNP administration with regard to creating a free media with the repeal of oppressive laws, Jayasekera said that it was apt to debate the media votes some 10 years after the Declaration of Media Freedom and Social Responsibility.

Perhaps inspired by the remarks on yellow journalism by a politician who perhaps is the least qualified to judge or speak on media issues, Jayasekera was heard speaking of the 'Bellasconi Effect.'

"He tried everything in the book and even outside of it to suppress the media, and now we are perhaps experiencing the Rajapakse Effect in full - white vans, abductions and threats all included," sniped the MP.

To gauge the 'Rajapakse Effect' and propound it as a theory, one had to look at the number of occasions media organisations had to file action against oppressive laws, the manner in which the ABC Network was shut down until the owner's brother changed political affiliations and the way in which the Rajapakses waded into media organisations such as the Nation Group by purchasing controlling shares through lackeys, noted the MP.

If Jayasekera had serious concerns about the oppressive culture that prevailed making this a media hostile place, Minister Anura Yapa sought to alleviate all fears by painting a rosy picture, something he is good at.

He said it was necessary to acknowledge that there was politics in the media and called upon members not to speak as if the disputed media regulations fell from the sky. "They were the outcome of deliberations that continued for two years. We have no desire to control or gag the media," he said.

The Minister said it was sad to find that every time a way of change was mooted or restructuring proposed, the media made a habit of calling it an attempt to suppress the media.

"I believe in the impossibility of regulating media. One has to be an ace idiot to attempt regulating or controlling the media in this day and age. There is an information explosion. There is the internet. Even if you wanted to do it, it is no longer possible," he noted.

And for all of the criticisms about Sri Lanka being ranked among the least safe places for journalists to live, the Minister made no mention. But the mission statement contained in his Performance Report 2008 should inspire a ready laugh or two.

It states: "Achieving excellence in the total practice of the media by facilitating to usher in a people friendly, development oriented, free and responsible media culture." And here's to that mission statement!


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