Sunday, 12 May 2002  
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Sunday Essay: Are we ready for pluralism?

by Ajith Samaranayake

It rained on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, but inside Committee Room 'A' of the BMICH the sun had risen on the small universe of the Sri Lankan press. National newspaper editors, all good and gallant men to the last, were at hand to greet Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who was his usual debonair self in his elegantly-out suit which is fast becoming his trade mark. Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapakse, who was to be the other guest of honour was unfortunately detained in Nuwara Eliya, in urgent consultation in the inner councils of the SLFP on how to discomfit the Wickremesinghe administration but this did not appear to bother the Prime Minister. In fact he wound up by saying that he had taken longer than he intended because of Mr. Rajapakse's absence.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga laments failure in nation building

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe urges pluralism

Of course the Prime Minister is lucky because he was speaking quite early in his tenure of office when the good intentions he proclaimed by way of media reform have yet to be tested against the touchstone of a later reality. In fact, when the Secretary of the Editors Guild Upali Tennekoon reminded the Prime Minister of what he had said the previous May as the Leader of the Opposition Mr. Wickremesinghe was able in all honesty to reiterate his words and one hopes that he would be able to keep them in the years to come. But far too often have we seen the sad spectacle of a Government's rosy honeymoon with the press disintegrate in mutual recrimination and tears. But the catalogue of proposed media reforms apart at the heart of the Prime Minister's speech was a plea for plurality. Endorsing what President Kumaratunga had said in New Delhi that Sri Lanka had failed in the task of nation-building Mr. Wickremesinghe said that he would go to the extent of saying that we had failed not only in the area of communal relations but in the whole task of building a pluralistic social order.

Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse the other guest of honour was detained in Nuwara Eliya

Pluralism, of course, means the diversity of views and the agreement to disagree which should be at the heart of any civilised society. It also means the right to dissent from the orthodoxies of the day without the fear of reprisals either through physical violence or fundamentalist backlash. Unfortunately however there is a vast gulf between the pieties that we utter and the accomplished reality. This goes for both politicians as well as the press.

As far as the press is concerned this means a genuine commitment to allowing the various diversities to find expression. This does not mean only the expression of political opinion (in fact it can be argued and with justification too that politics occupies far too much space in newspapers) but all other kinds of opinion spanning the economy, society and culture. Most often newspapers take the easy way out by juxtaposing interviews with politicians from two opposing parties but this is just not good enough. There has to be a more rigorous pursuit of reality and a much more rounded and multi-faceted expression of what is at work in a society which is much more complex than the comfortable black and white world which the media often portrays.

In our obsession with politics there are so many other issues which are neglected or just glossed over. For example in the welter of our business pages and the fulsome worship of the business moguls do we find any enlightened discussion on privatisation which will play an increasing part in the economy in the days to come? When there is so much talk of the increase in the cost of living is there any discussion of the market forces which determine this? When it is widely lamented that alcoholism, mental illness and an all-round decay in morality are the order of the day is there any discussion on the root causes of such a societal breakdown except to ask Prof. S.T. Hettiage to contribute his ritual piece? When it is similarly lamented that there is a large-scale pilfering of popular songs does anybody ask what those panjandrums in charge of the Intellectual Property Law are doing about it?

This reflects not merely the mental laziness of the press but also the apathy of the society at large. It would appear that Sri Lankans are political animals to the exclusion of everything else. We will have politics for breakfast, lunch and dinner and for afternoon tea also if possible but will not be bothered with anything else. Where are our consumer protection societies, our vigilance committees, our neighbourhood groups? Where is our Ralph Nader? There is no sense of public indignation at the many violations of the rules of the game by a political and bureaucratic Establishment which has become quite immune to the rules because of monumental public apathy.

Our press then is a mirror image of our society, lacklustre, apathetic and sluggish. To active this sluggish social monster calls for a stupendous task of social engineering but even if the monster is activated are our newspapers equipped to reflect the diversity which this might create? Our press is still too narrowly metropolitan in its outlook although there are some senior journalists and even editors who regularly go back to their villages every week. What is more (and what is more crucial for it is not the editors who after all determine the final policy of a newspaper) the ownership of the press is still concentrated in a minuscule portion of the elite which is so safely ensconced in the assumptions so typical of their class that to dislodge them seems near impossible.

So where does that leave us? The President might lament our failure in nation-building and the Prime Minister might urge pluralism on the nation but what happens if the people are not ready to heed the call of these clamorous trumpets. It is easy enough blaming the politicians for the mess we are in although certainly they are not without responsibility for our predicament but that by itself is not enough. All of us are to blame, press and public alike, or to use that parrot cry and vogue word of the seminar circuit 'civil society'. So while we urge the politicians to put their collective house in order let us also start at least making a stab at giving a start to the whole business, shall we?

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