During this World Media Freedom Week, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have reiterated their commitment to the vision of media rights and responsibilities. But it seems that in the high level bureaucracy some sections are still on the old regime’s mode of authoritarianism and cover up of corruption, with little transparency or accountability.
President Sirisena reiterated his commitment to media freedom when he presided at an event where proposals to establish a righteous media culture were presented to him by the Sri Lanka University Teachers’ Association of Communication and Media Studies. The President said the long delayed and much awaited Right to Information Bill would be approved in parliament soon and he hoped this would help strengthen media freedom. He disclosed that in the 1970s he had been the freelance Polonnaruwa correspondent for the Lake House group of newspapers and quipped that Sri Lanka could be proud that a former journalist was now the Executive President. Mr. Sirisena said he believed that more than politicians the world was ruled by the media groups and therefore their heads should act in an ethical manner.
Premier Wickremesinghe addressing another Media Freedom Day event also reiterated the government’s commitment to this principle while urging editors and journalists to decide whether they wanted to go back to the dark ages or see the quality of their freedoms enhanced through democratic reform.
While the government leaders are reiterating their commitment to media freedom, transparency and accountability, what happened yesterday went blatantly against this. The National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) playing a key role in reviving Prof. Senaka Bibile’s essential medicines concept, had called a media conference to explain its work during the past ten months and its plans for the future. Invitations were sent out to editors of print and electronic media groups.
The Daily Mirror learns that on Wednesday evening, Health Ministry Secretary Anura Jayawickrama had summoned the NMRA Chairman Prof. Lal Jayakody and told him that the media conference should be called off. The Secretary had cited some administrative regulations as the reason for this. We urge the Secretary to explain what right he has to prevent the sovereign people from being told, through the media, about what the NMRA is doing to make quality drugs available to the people at affordable prices. This is the first major step in a long journey to restore a Health Service where the well-being of patients is given top priority.
When the revered Prof. Bibile tried to do this in the 1970s, the United States government apparently influenced by the powerful transnational pharmaceutical corporations, virtually forced the Sri Lankan government to discard the Bibile policies. A sad Prof. Bibile resigned and left the country to work in British Guiana where one year later he died under mysterious circumstances.
Now Prof. Jayakody and other NMRA members are trying to make the spirit of Senaka Bibile come alive but the forces which eliminated a prophet of modern medicine are apparently still trying to maintain control over Sri Lanka’s health sector. There are allegations that some Health Ministry officials are still in the pockets of transnational corporations or the big pharma mafia.
When the Media Ministry Secretary Nimal Bopage last week tried to dictate to journalists as to what they should do, Premier Wickremesinghe blasted him saying his statement had damaged the government’s image. Mr. Bopage later withdrew his statement. We urge the President and the Prime Minister to act strongly in the latest instance also and ask the Health Ministry Secretary as to who gave him the power to deny the people their right to information.