Death of press freedom post independence

Of all the liberties enjoyed up to the early ’80’s, press freedom suffered the saddest blow. Up until the eighties the governments allowed freedom of speech and then came President Premadasa and he spelt the death-knell for free speech and democracy and tragically the murders of journalists which ensued beginning with the brutal murder of versatile actor, anchor and journalist Richard de Soysa who was dragged out of his home in the heart of Colombo in broad daylight by uniformed men and his body dumped on the beach.

l by Pearl Thevanayagam

(February 04, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) The differentiation from independence to freedom matters most as we celebrate independence from British dominion once more today. What choices of freedom has the average Sri Lankan got? Did the independence gained without a droplet of blood shedding give the average Ceylonese the freedom he/she is entitled to as in a democracy?
From Sinhala Only in 1956 to compulsorily learning Sinhala to get promoted in public services, from forcibly changing English number plates to Sinhala ones in vehicles to the denial of English stream education which greatly affected the Burgher community which led to the first mass exodus of professionals and intellectuals in the ’60’s, our freedom has continued to be curtailed by successive governments.
The denial of English education to the rural students saw the first Sinhala youth uprising in 1971 who were denied white-collar jobs even after completing their higher education in the vernacular. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Standardisation Policy laws enacted among others to alienate the Tamil minority would rouse the Tamil youth into armed rebellion against the State and the country plunged into a perpetual state of unrest and terror.
She would also go down in history as the leader who crushed the JVP rebellion annihilating a sizeable number of Sinhala youth and they would rise again in the eighties only to be crushed by the succeeding UNP government under J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa. Serendib Isle as Ceylon was known continued to lose its serendipity no matter how often tourist brochures flaunt the term.
Of all the liberties enjoyed up to the early ’80’s, press freedom suffered the saddest blow. Up until the eighties the governments allowed freedom of speech and then came President Premadasa and he spelt the death-knell for free speech and democracy and tragically the murders of journalists which ensued beginning with the brutal murder of versatile actor, anchor and journalist Richard de Soysa who was dragged out of his home in the heart of Colombo in broad daylight by uniformed men and his body dumped on the beach.
As Marxism and communist ideology began infiltrating the youth the governments also adopted Russia’s strategy in muzzling the press. Today Communist Russia and China appear more democratic than those countries which have enshrined freedom of expression in their constitution including ours.
But several Acts passed in parliament including the PSO (Public Service Ordnance) of 1956 followed by OSA (official Secrets Act) and PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) of 1972 further strangled press freedom and governments would successfully use these tools to muzzle journalists and writers.
Soysa’s death set the precedent to the murders of scores more journalists including Keerthi de Alwis, Sivaram alias Taraki, BBC correspondent Nimalarajan, Aiyathurai Nadesan, the Batticaloa Correspondent for several national newspapers, Atputharaja of Thinamurasu and last but not least Lasantha Wickrematunga. Evidence in all these killings point to State complicity since none of these were solved nor efforts made by the State to investigate.
The murders sent out warning signals to would-be muckrakers – as investigative journalists are popularly known – to shut up or ship out. Incidentally it was President Theodore Roosevelt who on April 14, 1906, on the occasion of dedicating the US House of representatives office building drew on a character from John Bunyan’s 1678 classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, saying, “ you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; Who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.
While cautioning about possible pitfalls of keeping one’s attention ever trained downward, “on the muck,” Roosevelt emphasized the social benefit of investigative muckraking reporting, saying:
There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.
Although it is incumbent on journalists to write with responsibility and take stock of national security it should not stop them from exposing corruption and malpractice, injustice and fraud be they in politics, business or society as a whole.
What plagues our country is the impunity with which it is ruled particularly by the family run dynasty of the Rajapakses and while we want to cherish the independence bestowed on us we certainly need to fight for every citizen’s freedom of expression. And that is why we have reached a point of no return and are compelled to ask the international community to sit in judgment on the government for its war crimes.
The writer is Asia Pacific Journalism Fellow at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, California and a print journalist for 21 years. She can be reached at pearltheva@hotmail.com)

  Share:

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

Sri Lanka Guardian has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 2007. We are independent and non-profit.