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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2674

How "fair" is Sri Lanka's media?

By Shenali Waduge

Media can be defined in many ways and for each of us it will have different and varying connotations. By and large what we aspire to gage from media is information leaving us to decide and derive at our own conclusions. Yet, most often media attempts to enlarge their "informative" mandate to coerce the readers or viewers to "buy into" their line of thinking and their views only. There is at present a massive surge to depict Sri Lanka as depriving media independence and media freedom. These are loose entities and without properly examining the actual scenarios there are bound to be misconceptions of the actual status quo.

Who exactly is a journalist? – someone who can write or someone attached to a newsprint publication, someone who has been working a day or two with a publication or someone who has been involved in news media for a number of years. There are once again varying versions of who a journalist actually is. Given the number of pressing issues taking place globally and locally some natural and most manmade, journalists have secured a gainful stake in the global information community. Their reporting has not only been looked forward to but their footage of happenings has led to a growing support base of people who have come to depend on their reporting. How "factual", how “true” these reports are needs to be explored.

In determining the status quo of the media in Sri Lanka it is essential to keep in mind that very few actually report fairly and many of us know who these “partial” and "impartial" reporters and their media houses are. For most journalists their profession is their bread and butter and therefore they must at all times follow the whiffs of the owners of the publication which eventually will help their rise in careers as well. At this stage it is essential that we do not forget that practically all the newsprint in Sri Lanka are aligned to a particular political party thus nullifying any claims of fair and impartial coverage.

The conflict in Sri Lanka was bound to attract all sorts of journalists and the people and the Government had to expect varied and & diverse reporting. Any Government cannot expect to have reports singing praise of its governance. However, when reporters are being tasked to report with bias it often creates a distance and leads to reporters hiding the truth or misleading the readers into accepting a totally different version. It eventually leads to skirmishes between those in Governance and the media reporting falsely. This has been a hallmark of reporting throughout Sri Lanka’s conflict. Much of the reporting itself is inconsistent as seen in the example below covering media deaths in the year 2007. "No media deaths in Sri Lanka in 2007" was the heading of a UNESCO statement (citing 53 journalists were killed internationally that year). However, that same year a report by the International Federation of Journalists issued a report citing 134 deaths and attributing 6 deaths in Sri Lanka. Reporters Without Borders says that 86 journalists and 20 media assistants were killed around the world in 2007. It is evident that there are many inconsistencies in the reporting and we must wonder who we ought to believe and why the numbers do not tally.

How do we benchmark the status given to the media in Sri Lanka – do we compare how journalists function in the west or do we keep to an Asian version of analysis. As we can see even the media coverage in the west is not without bias – often the owners of media houses dictate how a particular report should be channeled. Often the owners leave very little for "impartial" reporting. So in third world nations can we expect anything different? So long as media houses are owned and are run for profit there will always be the quest to "sell" news thus promoting writers to dig up "dirt" that often sells more quickly than good and impartial reporting. One of the dominating features of international and even local journalists of late is their sense of importance. Often one sees them demanding a special place for them at events, they whimper when they are asked to produce their National IDs and most often they think themselves the crusaders of virtuous reporting. We may recall various incidents in the past that give credence to this statement.

We know too well how the US journalists were deprived from covering Iraq throughout the two invasions by the US, yet the reports sided with the US administration and journalists chose to project to the US public of the need for a US invasion. Yet in all reports on Sri Lanka at the bottom of the article we can expect "independent reporting/coverage denied". If we wonder why the US has blocked more than 42 resolutions brought forward by the UN related to the Palestinian conflict it is because Israel is the undisputed ally of the US in the Middle East and if we still wonder why the US public remains pro-Israel all we need to do is count the Israeli owned US media corporations – 7 Israeli’s own the largest media corporations in the US - CBC, NBC, CBS, the Turner Broadcasting System, CNN, MTV, Universal Studios, MCA Records, Geffen Records, DGC Records, GRP Records, Rising Tide Records, Curb/Universal Records, and Interscope Records. If many of us feel that the UN is in the pocket of the US we need only count the three weeks that it took the UN Special Rappateur (Radhika Coomaraswamy) on Children to publicly condemn the atrocities taking place in Gaza leaving 300 dead children.

Unless people are wise and look back upon history, analyze the present with the past it is most likely that the public will be taken for a ride by most reporters who enjoy giving the information that will promote their line of thinking only.

The present situation in Sri Lanka is extremely interesting looking at different angles. Here we have a conflict which was fabricated into assuming an “ethnic” backlash by reporters of the past and kept alive by reporters of the present. How many of our reporters at the time came forward to deny any truth to this statement? How many reporters or new stations demanded that foreign media look at the high percentages of Tamils living amongst the Sinhalese, working amongst the Sinhalese, educating their children, employed in public and private sectors as well as running their own business establishments? How many of our reporters countered these false notions being projected internationally. The silence of our own reporters eventually led the world public to actually believe that Sri Lanka was suffering from an "ethnic hatred".

Having ruled for 30 years it took the 5th President of Sri Lanka to identify that Sri Lanka’s problems can only be solved after eliminating and nullifying LTTE terror. There is no need to change one’s political allegiance if it means to agree at least that this notion is correct. However, in Sri Lanka’s political climate one is expected to throw one’s hook and line with a particular political party which invariably means whether the party does right or wrong to approve their actions. This unfortunately has led many to accept blindly the irresponsible remarks by politicians and equally irresponsible reporting by sections of our local media. It is unfortunate that the media have not thought of Nation First.

Be that as it may we are well aware of the many factors that have enabled the LTTE to be given undue importance politically. If we accuse India of using the LTTE as a covert operation in Sri Lanka what can we say of President Premadasa’s handing over of arms to the LTTE or ordering 600 policemen to give themselves up to the LTTE to be killed in cold blood? If the world has condemned Sri Lanka for denying political power to the LTTE what can be said of President Chandrika offering the North to the LTTE leader for 10 years and finally Premier Wickremasinghe who even carved out parts of the North to the LTTE in a nonsensical Cease Fire Agreement. The undue coverage given to this document has blinded the reality and the truth and how many reporters have actually questioned the sanity of this document despite over 3000 recorded violations by the LTTE including the assassinations of two cabinet ministers?

Yet, even now there are many to bemoan the fact that the present Government should not have done away with the CFA and even the public who align themselves with the Opposition leader feel that the CFA was a masterpiece of Wickremasinghe eventually to corner the LTTE – can there really be any truth or any sanity to this claim when the LTTE made use of the Agreement to stock armed vehicles, sophisticated weaponry, procure arms etc quite openly with the Wickremasinghe Governments knowledge – why should the LTTE have stocked any weapons and why did the Wickremasinghe Government turn a blind eye to these happenings & most of all why did the media not highlight these and pressurize the Wickremaisnghe Government to do something about it? An Opposition Leader who has lost almost 20 elections doing a number on a dictator like Prabakaran is something very hard to believe!

Despite the Government propaganda the public by and large have come to accept that there are some incidents that lead them to believe that supporters of the LTTE will try all sorts of strategies and tactics to deny or delay the ultimate fate of the LTTE. We have had armed personnel being paid to divulge intelligence secrets – some of these led to the deaths of Parami Kulatunga and almost the loss of the present Army Commander, the public seem aware that even emissaries go beyond their mandate. Sri Lanka may recall how President Premadasa sent a shocked British High Commissioner packing for interfering in local governance. The present emissaries however seem to be overstepping their mandate as well and we have the Foreign Ministry calling for explanations from the German emissary.

In the most recent context we see back to back incidents that need closer examination - whether there is any truth in the Governments role or whether it could be a case of the wolf or the fox. Much of the campaigns across electronic media could not put any significant jolt to the military operations and the army’s advance to the North even India’s Tamil Nadu politicos have failed beyond sending some food convoys to the North.

For those who aspire to the story that the MTN studio incident was a Government involvement had plenty of coverage given to the story backed by foreign media claiming Sri Lanka is a dangerous place for the media to function in. It was an indirect way of pressurizing a Government that chose to ignore pressures to declare a ceasefire. Those who opine otherwise would ask why the Government would wish to sling mud upon itself especially at a time when it has captured Paranthan, Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass – these victories have greater coverage across Sri Lanka rather than a news station being attacked.

Those who prefer to balance the incidents may well do to firstly wonder why The MTN networks has not released its CCTV film to the police investigation team. The police also needs to look into how the tv station was able to carry out immediate coverage since new equipment was bought and placed in a new location & then wonder how far the insurance claim is likely to be as well.

The Opposition Alliance was quick to raise hue and cry forgetting their own period of governance when far from reporting the media had to be in hiding.

We can all recall the "beeshana" period in which Wickremasinghe was a prominent member of Parliament. The 89-90 period of Sri Lanka is something Sri Lanka’s media reporters have forgotten. The country was in darkness, people were scared to go to work, how many headless corpses lay on the road, how many Sinhalese youth lay burnt upon tyres – did the Human Rights Organizations even come forward to speak on behalf of these Sinhalese youth, did the UN issue a single statement to their families? Have the UNP forgotten Richard de Soysa, Sagarica Gomez – why did they have to die? The present set of JVP leaders were very much holding stewardship at the time – they may answer now why Themis Guruge was killed or why Premakeerthi de Alwis had to die before attempting to win votes just because they uphold democratic principles now! The former President Kumaratunge may also answer how many crimes her own security contingent would have committed before pointing fingers.

We then come to the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga – a scribe known for his courage, a scribe that exposed “truth” about the Government he was "opposed to". In this manner he was obviously more courageous than others but whether he accused or exposed those from the political party he belonged to is perhaps left for the readers to decide. There are many issues that come to mind when we think of his publication – the "gedara yana gamang" incident and other such "sexual" exposures remain very much constant in our minds. If we are to equate his death with the reasoning that his pen was silenced to deny the masses from knowing the truth – all we need do is to count how many reads his publication, how far a reach this publication has which will essentially be a bare minimal leaving aside Colombo’s elite but then that hardly makes up even 1% of the total population. So does the rural populace know Lasantha W, maybe not.

Yet, there were many to jump to the bandwagon that the perpetrators of the crime was none other than the Government which eventually led the funeral to be turned into a political circus and the slain body a perfect excuse to promote their own aspirations. Much like the Janaka Perera funeral, the emotional farewell was denied, the sanctimony of a funeral was galled into coconut throwing, burning leaflets, anti-Government protests….if the Western public has the opinion that freedom of speech and freedom of movement is denied in Sri Lanka here was a perfect example to show otherwise. "Sri Lanka set to bury anti-war editor" – AFP reported while many others preferred to share the notion that it was the Government who did it before any conclusive evidence had even come forth.

Many of us may even remember the occasion when a State Minister stampeding into the State TV station ended up all pink.

None of the protestors at Wickrematunga’s funeral were manhandled, none of the protestors were even silenced….they were allowed to go ahead with what they had planned thus leaving us to decide who could have best benefited by the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga and many of us do not want to think that Lasantha may have been an unnecessary victim to promote a dying cause that is likely to get defunct no sooner as Mullaitivu is captured and Prabakaran is no more.

What is most important at this juncture is that No One has Any Right to sniff the life out of another. It is essential that the truth exposes those who plan and execute these assassinationsand and murders using brainless souls who will pull the trigger for money. Lasantha Wikcramatunga nor any of the men and women whose lives have been cut short by the gun did not deserve to die. To the cruel minds who decide to eliminate people for their own gains their minds will eventually lead to their damnation.

Sri Lanka needless to say is at a very critical juncture. The country has managed to silence critics who have enjoyed projecting a "no military solution" but a "political solution" option – an adamant Government, excellent combination of strategies and innovative tactics by the three armed forces heads backed by vigilance of Sri Lanka’s police was able to unearth LTTE secret cells, secret links, LTTE hideouts etc and despite western nations at times refusing to even sell arms as well as pressure nations who supplied arms to Sri Lanka, the country was able to provide motivation to the armed forces whose commitment and goal has won back all the territory the previous Government wrote off as belonging to LTTE. Thus, all those who cried no military solution and all those who hyped figures of civilian casualties need only to look upon Gaza and feel ashamed. The accuracy of our Air Force has left zero-casualties if not can anyone show footage of electricity-denied Gaza hospitals where 1000 civilians have already died of which 300 are children.

The military success should eventually ask that the people accept leaders who will address their plight not the leaders who have lived in the comfort of Colombo and had done little to stop the LTTE of kidnapping their children to make them child soldiers or brainwashing their minds to hating the Sinhalese just to keep alive a dictators dream to rule a separate state and his cohorts to become rich through embezzlement & blackmail & their leaders a false sense of Leadership.

It is time for Sri Lanka’s reporters to open their eyes, review the realities and put country first though of course it is likely to affect them but we saw how seemingly courageous personalities like "deshapriya" eventually ended up shaming their own name publicly though many were of the opinion that he and others of his type stood for integrity. We can see clearly how those like him end up on payrolls of foreign establishments who seek to dislodge Governments they dislike.

Sri Lanka must look forward to a future where the media will look upon the rights of the public, report without prejudice, for the Government to govern without prejudice, for state institutions to function effectively and efficiently as we enter a period where we can begin to kick-start proper development throughout the nation that has been denied by different forces for over 30 years. More importantly to know who are friends are especially those that are foreign.

Let us all look forward to a better tomorrow

- Asian Tribune -

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