The reintroduction of the government-run press council is another marker of the decline of Sri Lanka’s democracy, says Uvindu Kurukulasuriya
“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets” —Napoleon Bonaparte
The guns are now silent in Sri Lanka. No more bayonets. But four newspapers out of 24 remain critical of the government, still trying to push the limits. All other newspapers are either controlled by the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his relatives, or are exercising self censorship. The president does not want the public to hear a single criticism of his government.
Perhaps that’s why he re-enforced the government-controlled press council on 12 June, despite the fact that the industry-run self-regulatory mechanism, the press complaints commission, is still operating. If that’s not the reason, then the government of Sri Lanka must answer the following questions: why has the government reintroduced the press council after seven years? Has the Sri Lankan press complaints commission failed to protect the victims of the press? If yes, can the government publish any data or research to prove it? Has the press self-regulatory system failed to protect the readers in Sri Lanka?
I don’t think the government will be able to answer any of those questions, but I can answer the last. Yes, we failed. As a press self-regulator we failed. That’s why only four newspapers out of 24 (Sunday Leader, Iruduna, Ravaya and Lanka) are not blindly supporting the government, or self-censoring. That’s why the majority of Sri Lankan people believe what the government says. That’s why the majority of Sri Lankan people are unware of the scale of the casualties of the war. That’s why the majority of the Sri Lankan public are unaware of the situation for internally displaced persons. That’s why the majority of Sri Lankan people are unaware of human rights violations. That’s why the majority of Sri Lankan people are unaware of democratic traditions.
All this has to be looked at in the context of the restrictions of the democratic space in the last three years in Sri Lanka. One issue is the abduction, false arrests and killing of journalists along with the burning of printing presses, withdrawal of the licences of the media institutions, and the changing of the ownership of media institutions. The reality for journalists in Sri Lanka is that they are fortunate to be allowed to live. But they live in fear of abductions and killings.
It’s not so much a matter of what you do write, but what you are told not to write. We are told not to refer to issues, or mention the president in this manner, or the secretary of defence in that manner. An enjoining order has been issued against the publication of any news item “defamatory” of the defence secretary.
Once, when I criticised the president in a live TV discussion, the government stopped the broadcast. Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of the Sunday Leader, was killed, and still no one has been arrested. Journalist Tissanayagam has been in prison for over a year on false charges.
Even at election time, almost all the media, both electronic and print, state run and private, support the ruling party. The media engage in a certain amount of self censorship, but this is far beyond the norm. Such is life in Sri Lanka.
The second issue is the breakdown of the institutions; a parliament in which ministers fail to turn up to answer questions, and committees of public enterprises and public accounts that are no longer functioning. These are the committees which are now headed by members of the government, which dictates what should be done. The Constitutional Council, an independent body which is responsible for nominating members of the Independent Commissions, the Police Commission, the Public Service Commission, the Election Commission, and approving nominations for Attorney General, among others, has yet to be appointed. When the normal institutions no longer function, certain MPs and civil servants are above the law.
As I said earlier, the press in Sri Lanka already has its own self-regulatory mechanism. It could improve, of course, but it’s on the right track. The reintroduction of the government press council signifies yet another blow to the system of checks and balances that is crumbling, along with Sri Lankan democracy.