Lasanda Kurukulasuriya, courtesy of DBS Jeyaraj, 2 August 2016, in http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/47609, where the title is “Ranil’s outbursts against journalists: A case of controlling the narrative?”
The recent outburst against journalists by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has caused raised eyebrows, not least because it flies in the face of the yahapalana government’s pledges to create a freer environment for the media. The PM’s remarks at an event in Kandy on the 23rd were unabashedly threatening. He did not merely take a passing swipe at a media organization or journalist who wrote something critical about him or his government but, having named the Daily Mirror and referred to its editor (Kesara Abeywardena), went on at some length about how ‘these journalists need to be taught a good lesson.’ Here’s part of what he said:
“The Daily Mirror newspaper reported that the foreign minister must be removed. This Daily Mirror editor has also told me to go as well. Now if he doesn’t go himself, we’ll have to see what we can do about it. He was constantly entertained at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s table, going ‘shopping’ for him. This newspaper attacked Muslims and Tamils. If these people are calling for the removal of our people, let’s teach them a good lesson before that. We shall last the full term of five years. If we get the people’s mandate we can go even further. We cannot allow these people to fool around like this.”……. (The PM also threatened to soon reveal the names of print journalists who ‘wined and dined and made money with the rogues’ in the previous regime.)
The PM was referring to a column published in the Daily Mirror of 20.07.16 written by a well known political analyst, calling for the exit of the foreign minister. It was written against the backdrop of simmering discontent over Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s partiality towards western powers demanding foreign participation in accountability mechanisms to be set up by Sri Lanka. That is in order to comply with a UNHRC resolution that Samaraweera signed up for in Geneva last year. President Maithripala Sirisena’s categorical statements rejecting the surrender of sovereignty that would follow from these moves if implemented, would seem to show that the foreign minister has over- reached himself.
Though everyone may not agree with everything asserted by the Daily Mirror’s analyst, he is not alone in expressing the view that Samaraweera should go. Here’s what Dr Mathias Keitel wrote online in Asian Tribune (‘The foreign minister Samaraweera must go’ – http://www.asiantribune.com/node/89292). It’s unlikely that Dr Keitel from Tubingen, Germany, ‘wined and dined’ at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s table.
“ … the Foreign Minister chose to brazenly contradict the President on a crucial matter of national importance and with international implications. It was an unpardonable breach of protocol and propriety for the Foreign Minister to contradict the President of the country. President Sirisena had categorically declared on two successive occasions that there will be no foreign judges to investigate alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister had reiterated the same sentiment. The Foreign Minister insensitively declared that the matter was still being discussed and people were free to express their own views. The Foreign Minister having made damaging concessions in the UNHRC resolution, may have privately provided assurances to his foreign interlocutors and diaspora Tamil groups which did not accord with the sentiments clearly articulated by the President of the country and was now seeking to wriggle out or was injudiciously trying to box in the President. Either way, in any mature democracy, he would have been shown the door. The requirement for the Foreign Minister to adopt a consistent stance with the Head of State and the Prime Minister is not a matter of courtesy, it is an obligation.”
The PM attacks the editor on account of the views expressed by a contributor. Surely he would know that a liberal newspaper would seek to publish diverse views on matters of national importance – including ideas not necessarily endorsed by the editor – so that readers can to make up their own minds on these issues. If this is happening and there is robust criticism of political figures taking place, it would show that the yahapalana government has indeed ushered in an era of greater media freedom. But we see that while government spokesmen boast of having introduced a Right to Information law in the interests of good governance and democracy, the prime minister, no less, singles out newspaper editors for naming and shaming, for publishing what he deems to be offensive.
It is not the first time the PM has threatened media organizations and journalists. In May this year he lambasted The Island and journalist Shamindra Ferdinando who reported on the police detection of a cache of explosives including a suicide jacket in Chavakachcheri, and on arrests made. With reference to one of these reports the PM reportedly said “unless a statement was given to the police within 24 hours, both editor of The Island and the writer of the article would be summoned.” The next day the Police Media Unit was shut down, reportedly on orders from the Ministry of Law and Order. To date no official spokesperson has been appointed from whom a journalist may seek clarification on a law and order related issue.
The government has also announced its intention to set up a regulatory body to ‘monitor’ the print media, claiming that existing laws are insufficient to check errant reporters. The recent moves seen in conjunction with the verbal attacks on journalists do not bode well for the prospect of creating an environment where the media may play their role as a vital democratic institution. These moves are more likely bring about media chill.
The government’s anxiety over the nature of media coverage of national issues is not unrelated to its having painted itself into a corner with regard to some of them. This is so in foreign relations, particularly in matters relating to the US-led UN resolution. There seems to be an attempt to manage the optics of visits made by foreign dignitaries. For instance there was a marked difference in arrangements made by the foreign ministry for the joint media briefings during recent visits by China’s foreign minister Wang Yi on the one hand, and two US officials of much lower rank, on the other. If the minister’s intention was to downplay the importance of the Chinese emissary’s visit, the message in the optics would not have been lost on the visitor. On both occasions questions were not taken from the media.
It seems to have become standard practice for the US embassy and the Foreign Ministry when they arrange ‘media availability’ for visiting US officials, to NOT take questions from media. Although Nisha Biswal praises the Sri Lankan government for introducing a Right to Information law, her own government makes sure that media events involving visitors from Washington are tightly managed, offering minimal opportunities for local journalists to question the US project in Sri Lanka. It might appear at first glance that these points relate to ‘merely’ the optics of foreign relations. But a closer reading might show that it’s a case of clumsily trying to control the narrative on a vital issue concerning the national interest.