homas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, has said that liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that it cannot be limited without being lost. George Orwell an English author deeply committed to democratic socialism and a sharp critic of totalitarianism has said that freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose.
In the light of the proclamations made by these western thinkers who had contributed to the concept of democracy as practised in the western world today, we would see that in Sri Lanka the free media – believed to be one of the pillars of democracy – is crumbling under pressure.
In Sri Lanka, sections of the print and electronic media are directly controlled by the government. As a result, even the senior journalists in the government media have no option but to toe the government line. Even some of the media groups that are privately owned are known to be directly or indirectly linked to the government. Only a few print and electronic media groups are independent but they also come under pressure at times.
It is in such a situation that the National Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations, which comes under the purview of the Defence Ministry, this week announced it had banned NGOs from holding news conferences, workshops, the training of journalists and the issuing of media statements. The announcement comes in the aftermath of the cancellation of journalists’ workshops organised by the internationally recognised Transparency International last month. The cancellation was severely criticised by the opposition and activist groups, who described it as a blow to democracy and the free media.
The NGO Secretariat, in a circular directed all NGOs to immediately refrain from engaging in such activities. Its Director D.M.S. Dissanayake claimed such NGO activities were beyond their mandate. He said 1,416 NGOs were registered with the NGO Secretariat and they were being ordered to immediately act within their mandate which meant they could not hold news conferences, conduct training programmes for journalists or issue media statements.
While opposition critics describe this order as draconian and dictatorial, the Civil Society Collective (CSC), a coalition formed by NGOs, said on Wednesday the move by the Defence Ministry was illegal and therefore the NGOs would ignore the ban and continue their activities. The CSC said the Defence Ministry’s move was a serious blow to democracy and that the NGOs had the right to the freedom of speech and association.
The CSC said if the order was not withdrawn, it would challenge the ban in courts. Lawyer and human rights activist J.C. Weliamuna who heads the Lawyers’ Collective said the ban was the result of a long-planned move to undermine NGOs on the perception that they were working against the government.
Although the government may have its reasons, the gagging of a certain section from voicing their opinions, however unpalatable it maybe, is not healthy for democracy and good governance. Let all voices be heard so that the wider public could decide who is right and who is wrong.