Communicating a power-grab | Daily News


 

Communicating a power-grab

On that fateful day, October 26, 2018, the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka was late. He was due to arrive at 2.00 p.m. Announcements were made that he would be arriving at any moment.

I was at BMICH in a large gathering of journalists from all parts of Sri Lanka. We were awaiting the arrival of President Maithripala Sirisena.

President Sirisena was the chief guest at the awards ceremony for excellence in investigative reporting, organised by the Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions. The event marked the conclusion of a one year training in investigative journalism conducted by the Institute of Warm and Peace, USA.

The President did arrive 2 hours late. He seemed stressed out and was in a hurry. He did not deliver the scheduled address printed on the agenda. However he handed over the trophies and posed for photographs with the journalists. He rushed off in a short while.

Later on that same day, the news that took the nation by storm was announced. President Maithripala Sirisena had abruptly dismissed the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the premier’s post, in a move that contravened the constitution and threatens to destabilize the country.

President Sirisena, at a Right to Information Seminar, the previous year, organised by the same media group reminded the gathering of journalists that he himself had been a provincial journalist and was the first journalist to rise to the position of the President of Sri Lanka.

As a former journalist, the President would be aware of the day-to-day challenges faced by journalists, especially those provincial correspondents that form the backbone of the media in Sri Lanka.

JOURNALISTS GRAPPLE WITH HOW TO RESPOND

However the constitutional coup in Sri Lanka took even most of the journalists by surprise. They had to grapple with the challenge on how to respond to the crisis.

Shortly after Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as Prime Minister, supporters of his party invaded Sri Lankan newsrooms to take control of some of the island’s main TV stations. They forced journalists to change front pages of their print editions.

Dharisha Bastians, Editor of the Sunday Observer was commanded to surrender complete editorial control of the paper. Journalists both in Sri Lanka and around the world feared when control was given back to Rajapaksa, who is well-known for being on the world’s list of worst press freedom predators, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which campaigns for freedom of information.

The people of Sri Lanka have the right to democracy and journalists should not have to be placed in a situation where they have to fear for their lives in reporting in the interest of the public.

WORKING ENVIRONMENT FOR JOURNALISTS

Many journalists disappeared throughout the years when Rajapaksa was President. Others were killed for holding views that went against the government. After the appointment of Wickremesinghe, as Prime Minister, many journalists felt they could again voice their opinions more openly. However, the sudden reappointment of Rajapaksa left not only journalists but minority groups concerned over action that could potentially threaten stability in the country.

“We cannot forget the state terror against journalists during the rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa,” Deputy Editor of the newspaper Anidda and former head of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association Lasantha Ruhunage is reported to have told Reporters Sans Frontiers. “So many journalists were harassed, attacked, and killed. There are reported cases of disappeared journalists.”

It is not only the rights of journalists that were stripped. What happened to the rights of the people? The people of Sri Lanka should be given the right to choose whom they want to govern the land.

RIGHTS OF JOURNALISTS AND RIGHTS OF CITIZENS STRIPPED

The people selected Wickremesinghe through a democratic vote. They should be entitled to vote again if necessary be to choose who they want to govern them. Sri Lankan citizens should not have their rights stripped from them; they should not have to be told who is going to be Prime Minister based on the decision of the incumbent President.

The decision should be with the people of Sri Lanka. Hence the coup resulted in mass protests in the country demanding for democracy to be upheld and the parliament to reconvene.

In a highly polarized media community in Sri Lanka which still lags far behind in professionalism and ethics, the constitutional coups posed a formidable challenge to the media.

The crisis saw the resilience of Sri Lanka’s democracy among its citizens amid multiple setbacks. Activism by citizens in defence of political freedom, political consciousness, education and participation greatly increased. Activism, participation and resistance was particularly large among young voters, whose political weapons were the use of political humour shared through social media.

DEFENDING FREEDOM

President Sirisena's betrayal of the 2015 mandate, which opened a democratic space for Sri Lankans, shook and angered many citizens who spontaneously mobilized to defend constitutional governance, democracy, and freedom.

On December 13, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that President Sirisena’s decision to dissolve the Parliament 20 months before the end of its term was unconstitutional. A full (seven-judge) bench unanimously ruled on that the President cannot dissolve Parliament until it completes a four-and-a-half year term.

The court also said the President's decision to call snap elections was illegal. On December 14 in response to the Supreme Court rulings, according to party members, Mahinda Rajapaksa said he would relinquish his claim to be Prime Minister.

Even in the polarized context, Sri Lankan media in general fell in line with the principles of democracy and media ethics during the seven weeks of political, social and economic turmoil.

PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION MEDIA COVERAGE

As Sri Lanka is gearing for a catalytic change with the forthcoming Presidential Election, the media has a huge responsibility to play as a watch dog and provider of balanced and ethical information to the citizens.

The Election Commission has published guidelines for media in the context of the election. However, many media outlets are clearly demonstrating where their allegiance lies through biased reporting with little or no regard for media ethics and professionalism.

The electronic media in particular, which has a large audience and is a beneficiary of airwaves and frequencies that are considered public property in Sri Lanka has a huge responsibility in serving the public who turn to its channels for credible information, while social media is churning out hate speech and fake news.

Most broadcasting stations in Sri Lanka are run as a business. At times this can influence the editorial decision making and subsequently impact on the thoughts of the audiences. The same is prevalent in the print media houses, but because of the great influence electronic media has on the people it plays a bigger role in influencing the thought pattern of the people.

SAFEGUARDING MEDIA CREDIBILITY

Media should be conscious that in the long run, credibility is important for media to sustain and expand its’ audiences.

Media in Sri Lanka should take note that Public Service Broadcasting PSB has proved to be cornerstone for a professional and democratic media culture worldwide. A growing need for professional media, free of political interference, editorial bias and parochial ownership interests, re-affirms the need to promote a new culture of media that operates in the public interest, to act as a counter-weight to the obvious political bias of state owned media as well as private media.

At this crucial time in Sri Lanka, when democracy is at the cross roads, the media has to prove itself and safeguard the values of democracy that will usher an era of freedom with responsibility for the media and not a dark era of repression and fear for the lives of journalists.

The media community should be cautious. It is their personal and professional obligation to do their part to ensure that never again do any of their members have to lose their lives like Lasantha Wickramatunga, disappear like Ekneligoda, or be brutally attacked like Keith Noyar or Poddala Jayantha and numerous others who are still taking refuge in foreign lands.

(The writer is a Social Entrepreneur and Media Consultant. She was the founder CEO of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka and Dy Country Director of Internews)


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