By Neville de Silva
May 7 2017 (The Sunday Times – Sri Lanka)
Overawed by the May Day public display of support for their political opponents and even for their partners in government and perhaps exhausted by their own efforts to convince the people that promises made two years ago have not been forgotten, our ruling elite seem to have forgotten one important event.
May 3rd was World Press Freedom Day which is commemorated in most parts of the world where even a semblance of freedom still exists and media practitioners can still get away with their limbs intact and their rights not entirely suppressed by despicable despots, officious bureaucrats and nepotistic appointees with little or no knowledge of the basic principles of good governance.
Usually presidents, prime ministers and ministers in charge of media would issue statements on World Press Freedom Day extolling their own virtues in safeguarding media freedom, how they have battled to preserve it or revive it after years of suppression and have stopped the physical and mental harassment of journalists.
But this year even those platitudinous words from political pulpits were absent. At the time of writing this column on Thursday night (London time) I checked the official websites of the president and prime minister who tend to move onto centre stage whenever there is a major national or international event that calls for a paragraph or two celebrating or commemorating it. After all, this government has often celebrated with words the great media victories it has won for us, extirpating the vicious maltreatment that went before.
Alas! I found none. There are, of course, the naïve and the ignorant which would discourage the media from delving too deep into their websites in case we discover their idiosyncrasies and lack of clarity. Despite such attempts at bureaucratic and diplomatic obfuscation we searched even the website of the Minister of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, who, as the minister in charge should have recognised the importance of the world event and issued a statement on behalf of the country if the president and prime minister were too exhausted after participating in Labour Day activities though our May Day has little to do with workers, unlike when there was a strong left movement. Today workers serve one purpose — filling the sites of the rallies to which they are often transported at the expense of political parties.
Curiously enough even that usually loquacious secretary to the ministry seems to have taken a vow of silence which some might say is not a bad thing after all given some earlier encounters. Finally I managed to uncover a statement made by the Deputy Minister of Mass Media Karunarathna Paranawithana. However this record of government achievements in safeguarding journalists and their rights was not made in Sri Lanka but in the Indonesian capital Jakarta where a conference was held in connection with Press Freedom Day.
Some might even say that the government is trying to distance itself from its earlier commitment to media freedom by talking of its achievements in safeguarding that freedom by ‘selling’ these tales abroad instead of at home. Admittedly, it is more difficult to do so at home where the perennial platitudes are accepted with as much alacrity as the garbage that has been accumulating over the years at Meethotamulla.
“The government will seek high standards in media in Sri Lanka through the establishment of an independent media commission said Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media Deputy Minister Karu Paranawithana addressing world press freedom day conference in Jakarta on May 3.
The Government is also committed to the cause of journalist safety and all efforts will be taken to end impunity, Mr. Paranawithana said addressing the panel on Journalists Safety and Tackling Impunity.
We are slowly but gradually moving towards ensuring full media freedom in Sri Lanka, he added,” reported the ministry website.
For the edification of those participants who are not fully acquainted with government media policy and related issues it would surely have been beneficial all round if the deputy minister had spelled out what this independent media commission is all about.
How does this commission work and how is the government going to seek to raise high standards in the media. Is this independent commission going to be truly independent or is it going to turn out to be another stalking horse that will stamp its hooves on criticism and dissent?
That is the crucial question here. Not what the government claims the commission is but what it will be in practice — another body to oversee the media under a more innocuous title.
“The government was successful in implementing RTI laws in Sri Lanka and the same inclusive procedures will be adopted in bringing in laws on media regulation,” the Deputy Minister reportedly said. Admittedly, the RTI law was a progressive measure and one should be thankful for seeing it through. But this rosy picture is already beginning to fade as it is being challenged.
Last Sunday, this newspaper carried two items — a news report by Namini Wijedasa and a column by the papers Legal Affairs commentator that exposed the surreptitious means by which the government has managed to smuggle into the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) offences such as the one relating to “confidential information” by simply tampering with words in the earlier draft, intended it would seem to convince the European Union to approve GSP Plus status for Sri Lanka.
But, as Namini Wijedasa points out, this undermines the much-touted Right to Information Act. Wijedasa wrote: Confidential information has a broad definition under the CTA policy framework. It includes: “Any information not in the public domain, the dissemination of which is likely to have an adverse effect on national or public security.”
“Questions now arise on the position of the CTA against the Right to Information Act, also enacted by this Government, which denotes that public security is not a ground to restrict information. The RTI Act only permits information to be withheld on the grounds of “national security, defence of the State or territorial integrity”. This means that the proposed CTA now contradicts the RTI Act. It would also prevail over the RTI Act because the draft CTA states that once enacted it will have priority over past laws, she wrote.”
Legal Affairs columnist Kishali Pinto Jayawardene provides a more detailed analysis of how the government has tried to sneak in dangerous definitions of offences under the Counter Terrorism Act which it pretended to drop because of earlier objections.
Space does not permit me to quote at length Ms. Pinto Jayawardene’s column but it must be read in full to understand how the government is trying to hoodwink the country and the European Union by showing a more benign face when in fact it is subtracting from the progressive legislation it has already enacted.
This contagion of deception, lies and hostility to journalistic freedom and independence is now spreading beyond Sri Lanka’s shores where even diplomatic missions seem to believe that they should deny journalists access to information and contact, thus trampling on the right of the media to seek information under the RTI law.
Last month, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies held a two-day conference in London, co-sponsored by the Asian Affairs Magazine, on the theme “The Commonwealth and Challenges to Media Freedom”. A paper by Kishali Pinto Jayawardene was presented on the increasing concern in Sri Lanka, particularly regarding the faltering progress in enacting a Right to Information law and the impact of a recently proposed counter-terror law on freedom of expression.
As a founder-member of the Commonwealth one would expect Sri Lanka to be represented at diplomatic level, not only because it is a subject of concern to the Sri Lankan government which has expressed on numerous occasions its commitment to media freedom and the safety of journalists, but because of the presentation on Sri Lanka which was an embarrassing expose’.
This conference attracted many experts from diverse fields but all interested in media freedom. Much could have been learnt on the importance of the media’s role even in promoting trade, which today is a priority area for the government. For those who are unaware of the Commonwealth’s Latimer House Principles it would have been an opportunity to add to their storehouse of knowledge, which seems to have plenty of vacant space these days.
But then there must be a will to participate and a desire to learn how to deal with the media and how to use it as an important adjunct to the democratic process, not shun it because of ill-advice or ignorance, as the conference so patently conveyed.