Obviously finding themselves with abundance of time on their hands, the boffins at Reporters Without Borders have seen fit to amass what they like to call a Press Freedom Index. In fact, they do it every year. Hours are exhausted trying to position as many countries as likely on a numerical scale, while monitoring the go up and fall of the a variety of regimes is supposed to give us with a meaningful insight into the ease of use of information and opinions to their people 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 sufficient of an idea about press liberty in other countries to realise that being described as practically the worst is equal to proverb that there are no independent newspapers, radio stations or television networks, that any kind of criticism of the state administration is carrying a punishment of 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 appraisal 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 illegally exercised by means of severe attacks on rebel voices in order to ensure that people do not have access to any in order or opinions other than those so preferred by the powers that be.
Proof, of course, is not present. Looking back over the statements made by Reporters Without Borders this year, one finds orientation to four occasions on which journalists have come under attack. In February, a number of employees of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation were upset 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 upset 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 surely not been the driving force at the back 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 assault bore all the hallmarks of the LTTE. It was a terrible and cowardly act, but barely a blow to press freedom. In the Jaffna case, the TV presenter may well have been killed since 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 proposal that this was Government policy. Indeed, it would be rather odd for the state to resort to violence next to the workers 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 give security for key employees in the result of these events.
The Government has also in use note of the fact that members of the Security Forces were accused of involvement in the assault on the Sri Lanka Press organization 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 military was also claimed. Reports of intimidation 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 methodically undesirable phenomenon has been irrevocably arrested now, the Government is surely not in favour of such actions and for the moment appears to have succeeded in controlling rogue elements.
These few incidents are all very unfortunate but hardly proof of an organised campaign by the Government next to the media. Reporters Without Borders seems to have made that thought up to suit its own agenda.
Journalists do face problems in the disagreement areas. The Tamil group of people has been undergoing a lengthy and very bitter struggle between opposing armed groups, and the media certainly has not runaway 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 distribute information, and broadcasting alternative opinions is simply forbidden. Like other armed groups, the LTTE has exposed itself capable of imposing itself through violence on journalists elsewhere too. The Tamil media has suffered the most, as control over Tamil medium publication and broadcasters is quite more important to the LTTE and other armed groups who fear the disapproval of those they claim to stand for. Peace is the only solution here, and this is precisely what the Government is trying to achieve.
The Government imposes very few restrictions on journalists cover the military campaign. They are not allowed to travel to the conflict areas other than with organised trips in order to prevent operational in order getting across to the opposite force, as is common practice around the globe. There is no censorship of newspapers, and the idea that the new system for television and radio broadcasters are some form of effort to block criticism is pure imagination. They allow for operating licences to be withdrawn if national security, public order, ethnic or spiritual harmony, moral decency or any of the laws of the country are put in jeopardy, which is also perfectly acceptable worldwide. The Supreme courtyard has proven itself to be amply capable of ensuring that any restrictions introduced do not contradict basic rights guaranteed by the constitution, and have been very quick to overturn 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 under arrest because the authorities suspect that he has been supporting terrorism, a crime that is also globally recognised. Whether he is guilty or not is being assessed through the legal process, which is already underway. If it cannot be established that Mr. Tissainayagam intended to help terrorists through his writings, he will go free.
The Press Freedom Index actually 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 fleeting look at the front pages of the newspapers suffices to know that there is no such obsession 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 account anything that reflects badly on the president or monarch, his family or close associates. Reporters Without Borders asserts that press can't write no matter which 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 better situation than any of these countries. Despite the problems acknowledged here, we have many private media outlets and they are both very skillful and rather enthusiastic about criticising the Government. This is astonishing to be cherished, for it strengthens our democracy. Debate has forever been vibrant here, and opposing views find profusion of room in newspaper pages and on television screens in Sri Lanka. Although more surely has to be done to get better the state of affairs further, suggestive of that this country is almost the worst in terms of press freedom is totally unreasonable.