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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September Editorial

September 26, 2007

There’s an old tale about a frog in a pot of water. If you turn the heat up very slowly, the frog just sits there and boils to death. In case you didn’t notice, it’s been getting awfully hot in Sri Lanka. More people are dead, more are without homes, and inflation and corruption are picking the pockets of all. Are you hopping mad, or are you sitting still?

Sri Lanka is actually a perfect fit for the ‘boiled frog’ metaphor. We are literally a small pond where everyone thinks they’re a big fish. Thirdtier feudals like the Rajapaksa family behave like generational kings. Everybody and their uncle is a Minister, entitled to a security detail of six and their choice of imported cars. Each Minister, in turn, appoints scores of their cronies to redundant government posts and promises even more to agitated university students. However, in the grand scheme of things, these people are barely qualified to manage a 7-11. Everyone feels like a big fish, when they are really just warty toads.

Take those two metaphors, and you have a small pond on slow boil. We have generations of feudal leaders who feel entitled to power, cars, attendants and more. We have new money politicians who have no scruples at all, turning Parliament into a mafia, simply taxing, borrowing, extorting, robbing and often assaulting the public while delivering nothing. In the midst of it all you have Sri Lankan citizens, blinking stupidly wherestheir blood should be boiling.

Hundreds of thousands of our citizens live in tents. You may not have noticed, but nobody has civil rights. Under Emergency Regulations our Constitution effectively doesn’t exist – we can be searched, seized and jailed on the whim of the state. Meanwhile, the state is run like a mafia and our ‘security’ forces are implicated in abductions, killings of aid workers and more. We have given up our national rights with nary a peep, letting the threat of the LTTE lower the level of our basic civilization. Our very Constitution and identity as a democratic nation is melting into so much pulp.

But Sri Lankans sit still. We might go to a protest if we get a lunchpacket. We might yell ‘Mahinda Chinthaney’ when food prices go up at the office canteen. But it’s not enough. The Rajapaksa family is stealing more generational wealth every day. Our young soldiers are sleeping and dying in the jungle while Mahinda’s naval son has been shipped off to
train in the UK. The rampant inflation is making each paycheck carry a bit less far. The war is taking us down a well-worn path. The slow boil is rising fast. If you feel it, maybe you should do something. Doesn’t have to be anything drastic, just kick, flap and make some noise. Perhaps the toads selling us out will start feeling the heat as well.

August Editorial

August 11, 2007

Sri Lanka is worse off than when Mahinda Rajapaksa entered power. Poorer, deader and more isolated from the world and each other. In Colombo you can perceive it in the ubiquitous police presence, abductions in our midst, and disruptive VIP convoys. In the North and East it is obvious in that over 600,000 are displaced, living cheek to jowl in IDP camps, having their women changing in front of strangers and their children using overcrowded latrines. Sri Lankans also have less money in their pockets than when Mahinda entered office. The Colombo Consumer Price Index (inflationary measure) is up by 25%, meaning that the same wages buy you less food. The war that demands this sacrifice has limited support with those supporting a military solution declining from 35.1% to 27.9% among the Sinhala population (CPA Peace Confidence Index). Finally, the Rajapaksa corruption ranges even to deal with the LTTE, offensive to everyone. In the face of all this bad news, how does this government stand?

One can point to the ineptitude of the Opposition, or the moral bankruptcy of crossover MPs like Milinda Moragoda or G.L. Peiris. However, the answer is more obvious. Sri Lanka is a democracy with a constitution. No matter how many people assemble in Hyde Park, the next presidential election is in 2011 and the next parliamentary election is in 2010 – unless Mahinda snaps his fingers on the latter. Read the rest of this entry »