When journalists capitulate

| by Pearl Thevanayagam

(March 12 2012, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Lies come easily to politicians. Diplomats lie for their countries and lawyers lie under oath since without lies they cannot make a living and they cannot afford their daily spirits which obfuscate their conscience which in turn tells them they are wrong in defending the accused who with or without circumstantial evidence committed the crime and at a price.
This leaves journalists who the people believe are telling the truth. Journalists are the latter day replicas of town-criers who predict events before they are made public. Journalists are known to tell it all; no holds barred. That was in years long gone by and much has changed. Now journalists can be bought for a tot of whiskey or on the top range of a sliding scale jaunt overseas as we have seen many of them posted as information counselors to ministries abroad.
They sold their souls for a mess of pottage and the public would rather depend on the soothsayer than believe the journalist be he/she is from state-owned media or the so-called independent media.
Malinda Seneviratne had done his homework and he knew which side of the bread is buttered. He showed enough sycophancy in the past several months to get on the good side of the government and followed other boot-licking hacks earning his (UN)just reward; no pun intended. A freelance from nowhere and now he is another emissary at the UN.
The President is desperate enough to court a fledgling journalist to represent him or rather defend him at the UN – a high court of a tribunal which could incarcerate him and his coteries in Hague’s prison if US and a host of other countries could indict him for war crimes in the same manner as Slobodan Milosovic and a host of other world leaders who thought they were invincible.
The President was let down by his trusted ambassadors, Tamara Kunanayakam, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Prof. G.L. Pieris. They had the unenviable task of lying for the President when truth stared in their faces. They found themselves in awkward positions of defending their hero who bribed them with short-term power, prestige and wealth although they know they are lying to a very intelligent group of eminent persons of international repute. The last of the trio of course does not need bribes since he hails from a wealthy stock. GLP sought power in politics and ruined his reputation in the academia.
Journalism has gone to the dogs; literally. Journalists are the new pariahs and they are in same league as estate agents, quacks, insurance policy sellers and cow-boy lawyers. Do you blame the public for mistrusting them?
Just read the Sunday papers. Journalists in the state media are openly known as mouth organs of the government. But the Island and the Sunday Times and classified as independent media are all for a Sinhala government for the Sinhalese and of this there is no doubt. Sunday Leader, Lakbima and Nation do not have much in the way of news so they do not count except for Gamini Weerakoon’s columns.
What has happened to independent and honest journalism? Why is it so hard to tell it as it is, without an agenda, without being intimidated or bribed. Most of the journalists I admired are now dead or killed. Journalists from the Burgher community I knew and other senior journalists who studied in the English medium were 24 carat sterling products in their prose, style, semantics, fairness, accuracy and balance. It would indeed be rare to find journalists in the calibre of Ivor Milheusen, Chandra De Silva, Mervyn de Silva, Daryll de Silva, Merle Williams, Anthea Peiris, Noeline Hunter, Ravi John, Richard de Soysa and several others whose names I cannot instantly recall.
These journalists had a life of their own after they finish their work and you would rarely see them at diplomatic pow-wows or politicians’ dinners and tamashas. Their lifestyles were quite plain and simple.
Ivor would take a trishaw to Cargills on payday. Daryll, Zorro (the court reporter), Sarath ( Police and courts beat) and Rodney whose only task at the Daily News is to take the office vehicle to parliament daily and bring back the proceedings which hardly strain his cerebrum scour the many bars around Lake House starting at 3.00 pm.
I had the most difficult task at the Daily News. I had to take Daryll’s notebook after his assignment and before he leaves the office un-noticed by our fiend of a news editor Aaron, write something for the morrow’s edition. Then I also had to answer their wives on pay day and make excuses for them as to why their husbands were not taking their telephone calls. Zorro tears up the payslip before handing over the remainder of his salary to his wife after his visit to the holy shrine, the bookies. Sarath used to take a jaunt in a radio-cab with his flavour of the payday.
My boring days at the Daily News re-writing government press releases and producing sunshine stories extolling the party in power and vilifying the opposition were brightened by these lovable rascals.
How can I forget the sub-editors? Anton Kurukulasuriya, Visaka Cooke, Chandra De Silva and the chief-sub Mr Silva would beckon me softly and ask me if their edited version of my hastily written copy about five times is okay with me. By the time they had finished with my copy and I earned my byline even I patted myself on the back for such as excellent story. Of course the sub committee would go home un-praised and unsung.
Oh, how I long for those halcyon days when journalists knew their trade, scribbled without fear and could not be coerced with bribes and favours.

The writer is Asia Pacific Journalism Fellow at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, California and a print journalist for 22 years. She can be reached at pearltheva@hotmail.com)
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