Obviously finding themselves with plenty of time on their hands, the boffins at Reporters Without Borders have seen fit to compile what they like to call a Press Freedom Index. In fact, they do it every year. Hours are spent trying to position as many countries as possible on a numerical scale, while monitoring the rise and fall of the various regimes is supposed to provide us with a meaningful insight into the availability of information and opinions to their citizens and the problems faced by journalists in supplying them.
Sri Lanka, it seems, has dropped a number of places in the last year. We are now ranked in the bottom ten in the world at 165 out of 173.
Most of us have enough of an idea about press freedom in other countries to realise that being described as practically the worst is tantamount to saying that there are no independent newspapers, radio stations or television networks, that any kind of criticism of the state administration is punishable by lengthy imprisonment, and that people are subject to an almost uninterrupted barrage of propaganda. But we all know that this isn’t the case here.
Reporters Without Borders justifies its assessment by claiming that journalists are often subject to violence organised by the Government. While accepting that this country is open to the press, it implies that control is unofficially exercised by means of severe attacks on dissenting voices in order to ensure that people do not have access to any information or opinions other than those so desired by the powers that be.
Proof, of course, is absent. Looking back over the statements made by Reporters Without Borders this year, one finds reference to four occasions on which journalists have come under attack. In February, a number of employees of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation were injured in knifings as they were travelling about Colombo. In May, a TV presenter was murdered as he returned home a short distance from Jaffna. In June, one of the coordinators of the Sri Lanka Press Institute was injured when assailants set upon his vehicle in Colombo. In October, a TV reporter was blown up while covering the opening of the UNP office in Anuradhapura.
The Government has certainly not been the driving force behind any of these incidents. Indeed, it has not even been accused of such a thing.
The LTTE was most likely responsible for the two killings of May and October. In the Anuradhapura case, the TV reporter just happened to be present when a suicide bomber assassinated Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera. The retired military officer was one of several known to be on their hit list, and the attack bore all the hallmarks of the LTTE. It was a terrible and cowardly act, but hardly a blow to press freedom. In the Jaffna case, the TV announcer may well have been killed because of his work. But even the most avid critics of the Government grant that everybody in the area, including his family and the private television station that employed him, believes that the killing was carried out by the LTTE.
While it has been alleged that goons with connections to a Government minister were involved in the attacks on the staff of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation in February, there is no suggestion that this was Government policy. Indeed, it would be rather odd for the state to resort to violence against the employees of a state-run broadcaster. Whether or not one believes that sufficient efforts have been made to find the culprits, the Government did take the initiative to provide security for key employees in the aftermath of these events.
The Government has also taken note of the fact that members of the Security Forces were accused of involvement in the assault on the Sri Lanka Press Institute employee in June. It came not long after a rather more serious incident involving the Associate Editor of The Nation on Sunday, in which the complicity of the Army soldiers was also claimed. Reports of threats made to journalists covering defence matters have come up on several other occasions, although Reporters Without Borders has made no comment. While nobody can say that this thoroughly undesirable phenomenon has been irreversibly arrested now, the Government is certainly not in favour of such actions and for the moment appears to have succeeded in controlling rogue elements.
These few incidents are all very regrettable, but hardly evidence of an organised campaign by the Government against the media. Reporters Without Borders seems to have made that idea up to suit its own agenda.
Journalists do face problems in the conflict areas. The Tamil community has been undergoing a lengthy and very bitter struggle between opposing armed groups, and the media certainly has not escaped it. The LTTE is by far the worst abuser of press freedom. Areas under its control have always been no go areas for those wishing to gather or disseminate information, and broadcasting alternative opinions is simply forbidden. Like other armed groups, the LTTE has shown itself capable of imposing itself through violence on journalists elsewhere too. The Tamil media has suffered the most, as control over Tamil medium publications and broadcasters is rather more important to the LTTE and other armed groups who fear the disapproval of those they claim to represent. Peace is the only solution here, and this is exactly what the Government is trying to achieve.
The Government imposes very few restrictions on journalists covering the military campaign. They are not allowed to travel to the conflict areas other than with organised trips in order to prevent operational information getting across to the opposing force, as is common practice around the globe. There is no censorship of newspapers, and the idea that the new regulations for television and radio broadcasters are some form of attempt to block criticism is pure imagination. They allow for operating licences to be withdrawn if national security, public order, ethnic or religious harmony, moral decency or any of the laws of the country are put in jeopardy, which is also perfectly acceptable worldwide. The Supreme Court has proven itself to be amply capable of ensuring that any restrictions introduced do not contradict fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution, and have been very quick to reverse such moves by previous administrations.
Reporters Without Borders highlights the case of Mr. Tissainayagam, suggesting that he is being punished for expressing his opinion. But this is wrong. He has been arrested because the authorities suspect that he has been supporting terrorism, a crime that is also internationally recognised. Whether he is guilty or not is being assessed through the legal process, which is already underway. If it cannot be proven that Mr. Tissainayagam intended to help terrorists through his writings, he will go free.
The Press Freedom Index really starts to look a bit ridiculous when one compares the position of this country with that of others. Tunisia, Belarus, Equatorial Guinea and Libya come in ahead of Sri Lanka at 143, 154, 156 and 160, but Reporters Without Borders says that a glance at the front pages of the newspapers suffices to know that there is no such thing as a free press. In Gabon, Morocco, Oman, Cambodia, Jordan, Cameroon and Malaysia, which actually do significantly better than Sri Lanka with rankings of 110, 122, 123, 126, 128, 129 and 132, it is strictly forbidden to report anything that reflects badly on the president or monarch, his family or close associates. Reporters Without Borders asserts that journalists can't write anything at all that doesn’t accord with government policy in Saudi Arabia and Laos, yet they also beat Sri Lanka at 161 and 164.
Sri Lanka, however, is in a rather healthier situation than any of these countries. Despite the problems acknowledged here, we have numerous private media outlets and they are both very adept and rather enthusiastic about criticising the Government. This is something to be cherished, for it strengthens our democracy. Debate has always been vibrant here, and opposing views find plenty of space in newspaper pages and on television screens in Sri Lanka. Although more certainly has to be done to improve the situation further, suggesting that this country is almost the worst in terms of press freedom is completely unreasonable.
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process