French Nobel Prize winning author, journalist and philosopher Albert Camus has said a free media can be good or bad, but most certainly without freedom, the media will never be anything but bad. In a similar vein, veteran United States politician Christopher Dodd has warned that when the people’s right to know is threatened and when the rights of free speech and free media are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.
The vital issues of media freedom and the Right To Information (RTI) have come to the spotlight as Sri Lanka moves into one of the most crucial periods in its history and a moment of truth with one opposition politician reviving the socialist theme and telling the people Anthima Satanata Serasiyaw or be ready for the final battle. Significantly when the Health Minister and the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena dramatically crossed over on November 21 and announced he would be the opposition’s common candidate for the January 8 presidential election, many political analysts flashed back to what happened 50 years ago in 1964. The then Sirimavo Bandaranaike government was making the first major attempt to muzzle the free media when senior minister C. P. de Silva -- also hailing from the same district as Mr. Sirisena -- made a dramatic crossover with 15 other MPs. The government’s move was defeated by one vote, a motion of no-confidence was passed immediately and the regime fell.
At the general election in 1965, the then United National Party Leader Dudley Senanayake was re-elected and formed a National Government with several parties including the then Federal Party. Mr. Sirisena recalled this historic event when he made a memorable speech at the UNP headquarters Sirikotha. While thanking UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe for the sacrifice he had made in agreeing to nominate Mr. Sirisena as the common opposition candidate he recalled that Dudley Senanayake also after the election victory in 1965 had offered the Prime Minister’s post to C.P. de Silva but he declined. That sacrificial act eventually led to C. P. de Silva being widely respected as the ‘Minneriya Deviyo’.
In 1972 however the new United Front government led by Mrs. Bandaranaike used or abused its huge majority to take over the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House). That was the beginning of the end of media freedom. Today 50 years later a large number of parties are rallying behind Mr. Sirisena in his campaign to abolish the executive presidency, restore parliamentary democracy, the principles of good governance and accountability, the independence of the judiciary and media freedom.
With the marvels of modern information and communication technology, Sri Lanka today has about 25 national newspapers and at least 15 special interest newspapers. We have more than 20 television stations and a staggering 70 radio stations in addition to scores of news and TV websites. Over the years and specially since 2010, the Rajapaksa government has enforced direct or indirect control over a large number of media outlets while we also see a typical case of the quantity going up but the quality down.
The commitment to the highest principles of journalism-- being the voice of the people and not the voice of the government -- has gradually declined. Also being degraded are the commitments to fair, accurate and balanced reporting or feature writing and the awareness that journalists are the instruments through which the sovereign people exercise their fundamental right to the freedom of information and expression.
The Editors Guild has laid down an important code of conduct for journalists but the extent to which it is practised is questionable as are the values such as integrity, honesty and the refusal to wear a price tag on their collars. Sometimes journalists are used by the government or other vested interests to plant stories.
The first step towards restoring media freedom and integrity could be the implementation of the Right To Information Act. The people should insist that both President Rajapaksa and the common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena give a solemn pledge to do this in their presidential election manifestos.