November Editorial

November 28, 2007

CAN A DIVIDED MEDIA FACE THE CHALLENGE? 

One would think that politicians would be used to criticism. After all, that is part and parcel of public life specially in a democracy. But in Sri Lanka, the higher one reaches in political life, the less tolerant they become. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a case in point. For most of his political career of over 30 years, Rajapaksa wooed the media. With his easy-going style, most journalists liked him. He was shrewd enough to use these personal relationships to further his political career and undermine those of his opponents.

All that changed once he became the all powerful Executive President. Even the mildest criticism in the media was enough for him to go ballistic. Surrounded by acolytes who praise his every move, the once easy going Rajapaksa can no longer tolerate criticism. Every newspaper article critical of him or his administration is seen as part of a conspiracy against him. And in his mind there are many conspiracies to topple him and the government. The UNP with the LTTE, the elite business community, the western nations with local and international NGOs are all seen as part of this conspiracy.

No wonder then that freedom of expression has come under tremendous pressure during his regime. Not only are individual journalists harassed, threatened, killed and intimidated, owners of media institutions have been frightened by a possible backlash to their business interests.
It seems that we are back to the same dark days of Presidents Premadasa and Kumaratunga. In the 15 years since the Premadasa regime, our leaders have not learned the lesson that oppressing the media is not a recipe for longevity. In fact the ability of the media to force regime change is almost non existent.
But the unfortunate truth is the more successful the Sri Lankan politicians become, the more egocentric and paranoid they grow.

The Sri Lankan media is in for another period of tough times. Whether it can resist successfully will depend on whether the media has learned the lessons from earlier periods of such oppression. The signs are not positive. Journalists are as divided as they were earlier and therefore not in a position to face down the government as one united front. This disunity will be the biggest strength to the government which will play one media group against the other, one journalist against the other, until finally the entire media will succumb to being the government’s “kept media”.

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