The ‘black’ media and the neo-liberal mafia



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by C. A. Chandraprema


The UNP has recommenced its attacks on the media. Some time ago Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe threatened journalists and media organisations mentioning some by name and this included our sister paper Divaina. Since the restoration of the UNP government some weeks ago, these attacks have assumed a more sinister aspect. There has been a stoppage of advertising from government owned institutions to the two premier private TV stations in the country Hiru TV and Derana TV.


 That was followed by demonstrations by masked protesters in front of Sirasa TV premises and the Maubima newspaper office and several other media organsiations including Derana. In April 2018, in the wake of PM Ranil Wickremesinghe defeating the no-confidence motion brought against him, there was a raucous demonstration outside the Sirasa TV premises by jubilant UNP activists and its was accompanied by the lighting of large quantities of fire crackers. The demonstration, in April, may perhaps be dismissed as a largely spontaneous outburst by drunken UNP loyalists. But the silent masked black clad demonstrators, last Thursday, portends something much more sinister than the louder and more visceral demonstration against Sirasa last April.


 Deliberate planned actions should cause much more concern than the spontaneous actions of drunken party loyalists. When these deliberate planned actions are carried out by educated, English speaking middle class persons that should cause more concern than when some drunken political party hoi polloi are involved in protests.


When the educated, English speaking middle class persons carry out these actions are supporters of the ruling party, that is a cause for alarm bells to start ringing throughout the country. The persons demonstrating outside media organisations are mostly employees of NGOs funded by the very foreign countries that openly backed the move to block the holding of a general election and that is a reason for the entire nation to stand up and take notice.


Neo-liberals without borders


The whole country saw the manner in which diplomats of Western embassies in Colombo went to Parliament to express support for the move not to have a general election and even sat in the court rooms to ‘observe’ the proceedings. It is doubtful whether such scenes of open Western tutelage were seen in this country even in the colonial era after universal suffrage was introduced in 1931 and the Donoughmore reforms were implemented. Now, when people paid by the countries represented by those very western diplomats demonstrate in front of local media organisations what are we to understand from that? So far as we know Sirasa TV and the Maubima newspaper ad Derana TV and the institutions these demonstrations were held in front of are all entirely indigenous enterprises.


 People may have differing views about the lines taken by these various media institutions, but at least any motives, aspirations, objectives they may have are rooted well within the borders of Sri Lanka. That cannot be said about the demonstrators outside those institutions. What this means is that Sri Lanka is now in the middle of a full scale neo-imperialist, neo-liberal invasion with a determined attempt being made to whip the local media into submission. It is a fact that after January 9, 2015, the media has been the only democratic institution still holding out. Until just days ago, both the government and the opposition were dominated by the same yahapalana group. The genuine opposition in the country, the Joint Opposition with 53 MPs had less time to speak in Parliament than the JVP which had only 6 MPs.


 The JO was unable to fulfil its role as the legitimate opposition in the country for nearly four years. It was the media that enabled the voice of the real opposition to be heard by giving them coverage in the news bulletins. This was why the media, in general, has earned the wrath of the UNP and the foreign and local neo-liberal mafia supporting them. The protests being held outside the media organisations are obviously aimed at preventing criticism of the ruling party the UNP on their own account as media institutions or preventing the opposition from getting publicity. The NGOs and organisations that participated in the protest were the following: Sri Lankawe Kanthavo, Aluth Piyapath, Aluth Parapura, Maruthaye Handa, Didulana Hadawatha, Prajathanthrawadaya Sandaha vu Samanallu, Vuththeeya Web Madhyawedeenge Sangamaya, Sadhu Janarawa, Negee Sitimu Sri Lanka, Chitrapata Adhyakshakawarunge Sangamaya, Athurudanvuwange Pavul Ekathuwa, Prajathanthrawadaya Sandaha vu Neethignayin, Samabima Organization.


 Among the prominent people seen in the midst of the protesters were the film director Vimukthi Jayasundera, actress Samanalee Fonseka, Brito Fernando and one Dhanushka who Sirasa TV identified as a JVP activist. Following a furious backlash from the media organisations, the UNP and JVP disassociated themselves from the protest but the JVP did not deny that Dhanushka was one of their activists. The most effective reaction to these protestors came from the staff of the Maubima newspaper, who came out of their office with placards of their own and held a counter demonisation charging that the demonstrators were from foreign funded NGOs. The Maubima staff also hooted and jeered as the protestors left.


Who was making a mistake?


The supreme irony in all this is the involvement of the Vurththeeya Web Madhyawedeenge Sangamaya (Professional Web-journalists Association) in this protest. A website is a versatile platform which can provide content in the printed word as well as in audio visual form. If the mainline TV stations and newspapers are making a mistake by being partial or biased, the web journalists should consider that a god send and their own ticket to success. That is what happened in the US – when the mainline media became either biased or tried to foist their own way of thinking on the public, people turned more and more towards alternative media. Even though the mainline TV stations and newspapers in the US supported Clinton, the reason why Trump won was because the alternative media had become so influential. So if the mainline TV stations and newspapers had been biased, that should have been welcomed by the Professional Web-journalists Association because that would make the people turn more and more towards the alternative media.


 When your competitors are making a mistake, why try to correct it? The reason why the Professional Web-journalists Association and other protestors did what they did was not because the mainline media organisations were making a mistake, but because they did the right thing and earned the trust of the people and thereby helped mould public opinion. The mainline media by and large, taken as a whole with a perhaps few prominent exceptions, have been even handed in their coverage of the government and the opposition. Because the government has been making one mistake after another since taking power four years ago, they may have been getting the worst of it when it comes to public opinion but that is not the fault of the mainline media. One can see at a glance that public opinion regarding the government is closely paralleled by the plummeting economic indices in the past four years.


 So, we see that any negative image that is present among the public is not the fault of the media but their own performance. Even politically, the yahapalana experiment has been a complete fiasco with the very president that the UNP got elected at their expense with their own votes turning against them before the lapse of four years. The mainline media cannot be blamed for the woes of the present government. As the ship slowly but surely sinks, the promoters of the yahapalana project are getting uneasy and resorting to desperate expedients to keep their project afloat. The demonstrations in front of media organisations is a symptom of that.


 None of the mainline media organization subject to pressure by this group can be accused of having reported one sidedly during the political crisis following October 26, 2018. The press conferences held at Temple Trees were given wide coverage by all TV stations and newspapers. What has happened here is that since the mainline media taken as a whole is doing a good job of reporting on both the government and the opposition, there is no room for an alternative media to make headway except in the interstices of the media scene. What were these foreign funded yahapalana organisations expecting the mainline media to do? The letter that they handed over to the media organisations that they demonstrated in front of gives us some indication. The letter began with what was clearly a warning – "Owners of media organisations and Mediamen,


We are watching you!"


 "What have you been doing as the owner of a media organization or as a mediaman? It has been made necessary to remind you of media ethics and social values because you flouted all social values and became a part of the anti-constitutional and anti-democratic coup of October 26. Your conduct after October 26 showed how unethical the media can be. By taking the side of a specific political group during the coup and justifying it, you flouted the expectation among the public that the media would conduct itself ethically. We wish to remind the electronic media especially that they are making profits from the frequencies that are public property and therefore the public has a right to question you."


 The letter took exception to the manner in which the media had reported the Supreme Court judgement against the dissolution of Parliament as the Supreme Court having ‘stopped the holding of a general election’. The argument being that this was a case of misrepresenting facts. This however is a debatable point. Under our present Constitution, Parliament can not simply be dissolved as a single act in isolation. Parliament can only be dissolved in order to hold a general election and any gazette dissolving parliament has to simultaneously announce not only the date for the next parliamentary election but even the date on which the new Parliament is to meet for the first time. Thus when the gazette dissolving parliament is stopped, that automatically stops the parliamentary election as well and the media did report it accurately.


The letter states that because of media ‘mudalalikaranaya’ the financial aspirations of the media organisations lies beyond the expectation that the media will be independent. Ironically, this accusation was being made by ‘NGO mudalalis’. The NGO letter accused the media of not reporting on both sides of the story. The letter also accuses the media of promoting jathiwadaya by which was meant Sinhala jathiwadaya – that accusation was levelled against media organisations owned by Tamils and non-Buddhists as well! The letter ends with the warning "We are watching you."


 From its contents, it can be seen that this letter was just an excuse to hold the demonstration in front of media organisations. The letter itself was not meant to convey anything significant except the point that the NGO protestors wanted the media to support the yahapalana side and report only that side without giving any coverage to the non-yahapalana side which has been gaining ground.


Jolly Somasundram’s brilliant


summing up


 The day after this protest took place in front of media organisations, the eminent former civil servant Jolly Somasunderam had a brilliant piece in The Island titled "An Orwellian Replay: As elections were not held, Democracy is saved!" which summed up very accurately why the western funded NGOs and the neo liberal mafia were getting so hot and bothered. Somasunderam states -


"Two days would be considered black in modern Sri Lanka, one, the horrible events which took place on 25th Friday, July 1983 and the second, a declared election not taking place on 5th January, Saturday, 2019, despite all proper conditions for the conduct of free and fair elections having been met by an independent National Elections Commission. Denying the People their right to exercise their franchise in the 2019 parliamentary elections, the denial having strong support from politicised civil society, marks the beginnings of an anti-democratic creep mimicking current trends in Europe and America. The next round may be that voters would not count but counters certainly would. The non-holding of the election is a precursor of what could happen, possibly ending by rescinding the electoral gains made since 1931.


"5th of January 2019, would be a day for ecstatic celebrations by politicised civil society- a catch all term for political scientists, unrepresentative self-appointed do-gooders and media journalists. Politicised civil society seem to have arrived at a faustian bargain with anti-democrats. It is not surprising that staunch democracies, like US, UK, Canada, who preach the virtues of elections the world over, are part of the anti-election movement in Sri Lanka. One is judged by the company one keeps. Never in the history of representative democracy has a declared election not been held or celebrated. 5th January is a day of mourning, for those deeply concerned with safeguarding their sovereign civic rights, the highest of it being the right to exercise their super-star right of franchise.


"The President is the only person in the country who is directly elected by the People and the only one who could dissolve Parliament. He takes necessary steps to stabilise the country. He is held responsible to Parliament and his electors. No other person, institution or agency could extract an accountability for actions of the president, even if there is a feeling that they are misguided: he has unfettered discretion….The new Parliament was scheduled to meet on 17th January, with a fresh cabinet in place….The elections did not take place, as the dissolution by the President was held to be inappropriate, since President Sirisena, had advanced the election date by 1 1/4 years. (Normally authoritarian Heads of the state wish to postpone elections). The People of the country have now to wait 1 1/4 further forlorn years, to cast their franchise. Far from being ones endowed with sovereignty, they have become political footballs, ready objects to be kicked around…"


"In 2018, Sri Lanka postponed a dissolution, shifting elections by 1 1/4 years. Politicised civil society, who claimed to be the embodiment of civic virtue, were delirious. They, possibly, would now let out an Orwellian cri de couer, "No elections: democracy is saved."


 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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