Ghosts of governments past

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena reflects on the alarming trends of media suppression in Sri Lanka, and the challenges that must be faced to bring about change.


For much of post-independent Sri Lanka, State violence has shaped and defined the parameters of human existence. Particularly in recent decades, coercion was exercised on the media through the shadowy tentacles of a deep security State.

A death chant for democracy

The impact therein has been crippling. Five years ago, in a column appropriately titled ‘A Death Chant for Democracy’ (Sunday Times, September 12, 2010), I asked this question: ‘When liberties are taken away and when democratic institutions die, is it even worse than human beings dying?’

So many of us were forced to put up with the subordination of the human spirit as civil liberties were violated and the law became irrelevant to victims. Is there anything worse than a lawyer who faces a court to argue constitutional rights, knowing from the outset that the effort is futile? And how pitiable is the plight of a journalist forced to write half-truths or outright lies in order simply to stay alive?

This is the reality that faced many Sri Lankans every day during the past several years. And even as we apparently emerge from the abyss today, with presidential and parliamentary polls stamping a rejection of the decade-long Rajapaksa rule, these searing memories stay with us.

Acknowledging an institutional crisis

Sri Lanka is currently facing a profound institutional crisis, of which the functioning of the media is but a part. This is not limited to a particular political regime or a specific president. Instead, the problems are systemic.

For example, the media had been on the frontlines of government attack much earlier than the past decade. The law itself played a deeply subversive role in this process. Sri Lanka’s media had often been engaged in abrasive legal tangles with the political establishment. Soon after the first Republican Constitution was enacted in 1972 with the aim of casting away colonial fetters, one of the exceedingly bitter disputes of that period arose over the Press Council law.

POGROM: Black July was one of the bloody markers of UNP rule
POGROM: Black July was one of the bloody markers of UNP rule

This law was mischievous in its intent, appointing a government constituted Council to supervise and, as some rightly said, to ‘commandeer’ the press. Section 16(1) and (2) of the Law prohibited the publication of Cabinet decisions and Cabinet documents; the latter was permitted only under very restrictive circumstances. These provisions were arbitrary and restrictive.

They offended the overriding principle that government decision-making should be subject to the right to know, except where there is an immediate and obvious danger to the security of the State. Even then, restrictions imposed must be proportionate to the threat envisaged. Additionally, Section 16(3) of the Press Council law made it an offence for any newspaper to publish an official secret as defined in the Official Secrets Act of 1955. The precise definition of what constitutes an ‘official secret’ was, however. archaic and vague.

Taming the judiciary over the Press Council law

Faced with the Bill, a spirited Constitutional Court clashed with the legislature when time bound fetters were sought to be imposed by politicians upon judges in deciding the matter. The Court pointed out that it is the judges and judges alone who have the duty of interpreting the Constitution. To fetter that duty would mean an abdication of the judicial function, it was declared.

MURDER MYSTERY: The killing of journalist and playwright Richard de Zoysa remains unsolved
MURDER MYSTERY: The killing of journalist and playwright Richard de Zoysa remains unsolved

But the balance of power ultimately tilted towards the politicians. Angered by what they saw as an affront to their powers, the legislature reacted adversely. The entire Court resigned and more pliant judges were appointed. Later, the Press Council law was ruled to be constitutional by the new Court in submissively respectful thinking. Predictably, the Press Council performed exceptionally badly in the years that followed, staffed by loyalists of government and exercising a covertly threatening power over the media

That was in 1973. Regardless of lessons learnt, however, during the many decades in-between, President Maithripala Sirisena reappointed members to the Press Council a few months ago, raising unsettling ghosts of governments past. This illustrates the unfortunate nexus between the past and the present and the reluctance of politicians—however much they may spout on media freedoms during election campaigns—to practically realise their promises once in power.

Pivotal warnings from the past

And there are further warnings. When Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga took over the reins of presidential office at the helm of the People’s Alliance party in 1994, an outpouring of joy, in similar if not greater measure as in 2015, was evidenced. The media was among the forces bringing Kumaratunga to power amidst the overthrowing of sixteen years of authoritarian rule under Sri Lanka’s other main party, the United National Party (UNP).

UNP rule had been characterised by bloody markers including the massacre of Tamil civilians in the Black July riots of 1983. Counter-terror tactics employed against both the northern-based Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and southern insurrectionists, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), included the infamous killing of journalist and playwright Richard de Zoysa, which still remains unsolved.

Yet just a short period after Kumaratunga came into power, the state media was transformed into a propaganda organ. Censorship and criminal defamation were used to muzzle the private media. Editors had to face a steady stream of criminal defamation indictments with the courts taking contrary and sometimes confusing views to fundamental questions such as the protection of sources. Compelled by increased pressure, the media came together in a rare display of unity and achieved the abolition of criminal defamation from the statute books. But this was just one isolated success story.

Under Kumaratunga’s successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa the suppression of the media was taken to unprecedented levels. But it must not be forgotten that this was a continuation (in its worst possible form) of what had transpired previously.

In 2015, we do not need to engage in death chants for democracy. But reversing the systemic repression of the Sri Lankan media on the part of both major political parties remains a formidable challenge. Similar to post-1994, we see the new government reacting defensively to media criticism, including using parliamentary privilege to stifle public discussion of alleged government corruption. To some extent, however, there is political will to ensure media reform. This October, the government has promised to table a Right to Information Bill drafted by an experts committee in conformity with international best practice. There is talk of an independent Broadcasting Authority. Where the state media is concerned, there is notably more balance in political coverage, through structured reform is still pending.

Inward reflection needed on part of the media

Meanwhile, the media itself needs to look inwards. The past decade has seen the best and worst of Sri Lankan journalism. On the one hand, journalists literally took their lives into their hands as they braved a deep security State to expose violations of life and entrenched corruption. On the other hand, this was also the era of ‘embedded journalism’, where vicious attacks were carried out by state and private media journalists on their own colleagues who had incurred the ire of the ruling regime

Others turned away when the country’s minorities were targeted. Constant attacks on Tamil media in the northern peninsula were downplayed in some national newspapers. Just last year, as militant Buddhist monks incited communal tensions in the picturesque seaside town of Alutgama, houses of both Muslims and Sinhalese were burnt in the ensuing violence. But some national newspapers published only the burnt houses of the Sinhalese while omitting to mention the damage caused to the Muslims. Certainly these are unforgivable transgressions of journalistic ethics.

But when all is said and done, this is a country where journalists have laid down their lives for speaking the truth. That sacrifice is unmatched. Even in the midst of difficult struggles to rejuvenate the country’s media culture, this fact must not be lost sight of.

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena is a Colombo-based civil liberties advocate and columnist for The Sunday Times, Colombo. This article is based on a public lecture she delivered at Chatham House, London on October19, 2015.

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