‘From the sidelines’ : Fear reigned then; Freedom reigns now | Sunday Observer

‘From the sidelines’ : Fear reigned then; Freedom reigns now

Last week marked the ninth death anniversary of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of The Sunday Leader who was brutally assassinated at Attidiya, in the outskirts of Colombo, as he drove to work. Co-incidentally, last week also marked the third anniversary of President Maithripala Sirisena assuming office as President. The latter has become a trigger for the evaluation of the President’s first three years in office. Fuelled by the upcoming local government elections, there has been a generous glut of government bashing, both, in the print and electronic media.

The main accusation against the President and the government is that it has not kept its promises and that it is not as efficient as its predecessor in ‘getting things done’. So be it, for criticism, constructive or otherwise- can only help the President and his government to reflect and improve on their performance. However, the government’s critics- and there are many of them- seldom refer to one crucial issue: no one is shooting the messenger anymore.

In the past three years, no journalists have been killed, assaulted, abducted or disappeared. In contrast, during the previous regime, the names of Lasantha Wickrematunge who was assassinated, Keith Noyahr who was abducted and assaulted and Prageeth Ekneligoda who disappeared without a trace became household names because of the fates that befell them. Wickrematunge is dead, Noyahr was lucky to survive his ordeal and the fate of Ekneligoda remains unknown. Investigations into all three incidents are ongoing.

Wickrematunge’s body has been exhumed and suspects with links to the military have been detained. The inquiry into Noyahr’s assault is in progress, albeit hampered by the journalist’s reluctance to return to the country. Investigations into Ekeneligoda’s disappearance are continuing but have yielded few definitive answers.

Today, some private television networks have become virtual mouthpieces for the forces against the government. Balanced reporting is not their strong suit. It can be argued that this is acceptable because the government has its own state television networks to get its message across although private networks now outnumber state television networks by far.

The same holds true for the print media. For the government, it is a battle it almost always loses. Consider, for instance, coverage of the proceedings of the recent Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the sale of Central Bank bonds. Newspapers and television networks, those which are ‘independent’ and those who are perceived as allies of the opposition went to town, reporting proceedings verbatim, causing great embarrassment to leading figures in the government. Again, that is as it should be.

If personalities in the government conducted themselves in an unbecoming manner, if they cannot remember who paid the rent for the apartment they live in, they deserve the treatment they get from the media.

In the long run, such criticism can only cleanse the government- even if it is by way of resignations- which would help to keep it on the straight and narrow.

Despite such untrammelled criticism of the government there have been no serious untoward incidents directed at journalists. Yes, there may be the occasional local politician, inebriated with power who makes the odd remark directed at the media, as for instance, Minister John Amaratunga did.

It is not that we condone what Amaratunga did- and indeed his actions should be condemned in the strongest possible terms- but it is a fact that journalists now enjoy a degree of freedom that they could have only fantasized about three years ago.

In the past three years the parameters of social commentary have also changed radically. Television and newspapers are no longer the principal vehicle for moulding public opinion, although they still play an influential role.

The impact of social media has grown exponentially and there have been almost no attempt to regulate this too- except perhaps for the ill-advised banning of one particular website within the country. In the wake of the three year anniversary of the President assuming office, there has been a rush to criticize his tenure.

The critics argue that the President has not kept most of his promises such as abolishing the Executive Presidency and introducing a new Constitution. They claim, the government, being a coalition of historical political rivals, the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, have been unable to get their acts together, with one party sabotaging what the other proposes. As a result, the critics argue, the government lacks direction and decisive leadership.

Some of these criticisms are valid. Some are coloured with a bias towards the opposition. Regardless, the critics are having a field day, expressing their opinion and berating the government with much fervour, and without any fear. We could see this as the one significant difference between this administration and the previous regime.

During the previous government, criticism was muted not because that government was performing exceptionally well and no one was corrupt, but because fear reigned. What dissent there was, was nipped in the bud and snuffed out before it assumed greater proportions- and this is what happened to Wickrematunge and what nearly happened to Noyahr. As a result, with critics of that government becoming chillingly silent, the government began to believe that it was the best government ever. That is why it went for an early election, believing it would win easily.

Unfortunately for that government, the people had noticed their misdeeds and, even if the media had kept relatively silent, remembered them as they went to the ballot box.

That is the price a government pays for trying to control the media through intimidation. The present government may succeed or it may fail. There is still time to determine that. Whatever happens, it won’t be for the want of criticism: it is copping plenty of it. We hope, those in authority have the good sense to realize that such criticism is the lifeblood of a government. It will constantly turn the searchlight inwards- and reveal misdeeds and miscreants. And that, contrary to the perception of some of those in power, can only help a government to remain in power.