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Sri Lanka’s “Free” Media

Oct 30, 2010 2:30:43 PM - thesundayleader.lk
  • Media bosses who are nothing but political stooges dominate the “independent” press

The Sri Lankan media such as it is represented by The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka, The Newspaper Publishers Society and the Sri Lanka Press Institute, is so captive that they continue to be held – nay, to be servile and subservient to a government that has effectively wiped its feet on the so called independent press.
It is indeed opportune that this week I hold up a mirror to the media in Sri Lanka. Week after week, the free media serves as a mirror in which the public can see itself. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. And today we are holding up that mirror to members in the media themselves.  Given the depths to which media freedom has been relegated to in this country particularly so amongst the “independent press” we believe it nothing but our duty to do so. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.
In my column today I reproduce my letter to the President of the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka which I wrote last week.  In that I emulate how the very idea of continuing as a member of the Editors Guild is repugnant when the so called defenders of free media are selling their right to freedom for a mess of pottage, to a government that has consistently intimidated the media into submission or silence and does little to uphold democratic values, nay even simply human values.

Ranjit Wijewardene, Thilanga Sumathipala and Nimal Welgama

Are these journalists threatened and perhaps even dead, to say like Walt Whitman, ‘I no doubt deserve my enemies, but I don’t believe I deserved my friends.’
It is only fair by the reading public that we bring to their notice who comprises the heads of Sri Lanka’s more leading so called independent media institutions (in relation to the print media) and their affiliations with politicians and political parties.
For a start lets focus on Nimal Welgama.  He is currently the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Upali Group of Companies which publishes the Daily Island, The Sunday Island, Irida Divaina and the daily Divaina newspapers as well as owning a top confectionary brand.  All four newspapers are not only owned by Welgama but market themselves as being “independent.”
The questions that begs asking is this.  How can Welgama’s group of newspapers claim to be free and non partisan when he has accepted a top government post and is co-currently the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom. Nimal Welgama, is also a member of the Monetary Board and succeeded Mrs Leisha Chandrasena as Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom on May 20, this year.  His brother, Kumara Welgama is the Minister of Transport.  The bottom line is this.  Politicians as we all know and have experienced are at best insincere in their support for a free press.
Long before the last third of the 19th century a newspaper, if it was of large circulation, was everywhere a venture or a property dependent wholly upon its advertisers. It had ceased to consider its public save as a bait for the advertiser.
We see the growth of the Press marked by these characteristics. (1) It falls into the hands of a very few rich men, and nearly always men of base origin and capacities. (2) It is, in their hands, a mere commercial enterprise. (3) It is economically supported by advertisers who can in part control it, but these are of the same Capitalist kind, in motive and manner, with the owners of the paper.
The Press in itself simply represents the news which its owners desire to print and the opinions which they desire to propagate.  And there we rest our case. As far as Upali Newspapers are concerned.
Similarly, Thilanga Sumathipala, owns and publishes two newspapers. The Lakbima and LakbimaNews.  Both newspapers insist they are independent.  But Sumathipala is not only a Member of Parliament but also the Borella Organiser for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party – appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Needless to say, if I were to at this stage document Sumathipala’s colourful history which I did at The Sunday Leader in 2003 it would take me another eight weeks (as it did then) and innumerable double spreads to showcase Sumathipala’s track record.  I will spare my readers that – they can simply check the internet or the archives of The Sunday Leader.
The fact of the matter is, these two newspapers, the Lakbima and LakbimaNews have the gall to mislead their readers into believing that they are independent and void of political bias or political agendas. When they have a politician right in the midst who they report to every single day.  Or at the very least whose political agendas they can in no way jostle but must follow irrespective of independent belief.
Ranjit Wijewardene is Chairman of the Wijeya Group of Newspapers. He is also Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka.  He is uncle to Ranil Wickremesinghe.  His son Ruwan Wijewardene is today a UNP parliamentarian.
It was only last year in December during the presidential campaign that Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa had proposed to Power and Energy Minister John Seneviratne to hand over the printing of electricity bills, a contract worth millions of rupees, to Lake House Investments in order to allegedly claim some control over the Daily Mirror and Lankadeepa newspapers. The owner of Lake House Investments, Ranjith Wijewardene is also the proprietor of Wijaya Newspapers.
Editor of the Sunday Lankadeepa, Ariyaratne Dombagahawatte in fact played an active role in the President’s election campaign and was also a member of the Media and Propaganda Committee of the President’s election campaign managed by Chandrapala Liyanage.
And while Ranjit Wijewardene approved the printing of electricity bills for the government he simultaneously approved and accepted the printing of the UNP’s election manifesto.  How many copies were printed or how many millions the group earned as a result is not known.
This, of course, is in similar vein to The Sunday Leader having accepted monies to increase its print order of two newspapers to back one candidate while simultaneously accepting a print order to print the Mahinda Chintanaya.   The latter was merely a business transaction that had absolutely no effect on the editorial content of the newspaper while the former was a deal to help promote and favour one candidate at an editorial level.  Only Rs. 11 million was paid to Leader Publications in this respect.
On the other hand double and treble of that was paid by the Sarath Fonseka faction to the Wijeya Group of newspapers to carry advertisements in his favour.  The sole difference being the Wijeya Group took the monies for advertisements while Leader Publications did so to increase its print order devoting in the process advertising space to articles and profiles boosting the image of Sarath Fonseka.
But I digress. The issue concerning the Wijeya Group is also this.  How can Ranjit Wijewardene tout or preach independence of the press when he is bound to government contracts on the one hand and on the other will devote reels of newsprint to promote the political future of his son Ruwan Wijewardene?  In this context, how can the Wijeya Group of Newspapers remain impartial and non partisan?
The Sri Lanka Press Institute, the brainchild of Ranjit Wijewardene and his Editor Sinha Ratnatunge is infused so heavily with foreign funding, is a place to which some media persons will be readily drawn given the humongous salaries, the foreign trips and free inland travel and accommodation that are up for grabs. It is for all purposes a NGO.
So sweet is the fruit from this Scandinavian funded tree, that salaries are often way beyond the remuneration the newspaper owners pay true media practitioners. No matter. We do not grudge them this extra luxury.
But for these luxuries the SLPI so bombastically created for the good of the media must act with circumspection and good sense.
And while the Press Institute is a private, rich man’s club run by a select few businessmen who also run newspapers, the Leader Group and several other publications are different. Ethical to the point of when we decide to back a presidential candidate at an election we inform our readers we are doing so. In that context giving them the choice to buy us or not.  Not a single other newspaper group in this country has had the courage or followed principled ethics to do so despite their acceptance of political office and other government perks and privileges including business deals that enhance both their personal and corporate finances.
Has the Wijeya Group for example in a single editorial acknowledged that they will continue to throw their weight behind Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ruwan Wijewardene?  We challenge this group to do so and inform their readers (as we did) that their political and other news will at all times and always be slanted in favour of Ruwan Wijewardene the Chairman’s son.  In the final count isn’t it the raison d’etre of the editors and publishers in Sri Lanka to promote the cause of excellent journalism in this country? Isn’t it their mandate to strengthen and protect journalists from discrimination, threats and harassment? Isn’t it their duty to promote the rule of law and democratic values of which the bedrock is a free Press?
But in Sri Lanka’s most dark and desperate hour only two issues seem to dominate the mind of these men. A good booze and an even better pay cheque.

Letter To Editor’s Guild
Mr. Manik De Silva
The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka

October 28, 2010.

Dear Manik,

I am writing to inform you that I don’t wish to continue as a member of the Editors Guild anymore.  When you asked me to join and extended an invitation to me I readily accepted.  In the belief that being a part of and member of the body would only ensure that I, as Editor of The Sunday Leader together with all other editors would be at the forefront of the movement against laws and executive action which attempt to curb press freedoms and gag the press.
That we would campaign against passing of black laws like the Press Council Bill against journalists, Broadcast Regulatory Authority, etc. That apart, I also believed that while newspapers would be free to hold their own views and opinions while also respecting and protecting the rights of individuals and the public’s right to know, none of us would in the process stoop to misinterpreting or deliberately lending a different and slanted perspective to evidence being led in a court of law merely to suit petty personal agendas.
And that is exactly what the Wijeya Group of Newspapers namely The Sunday Times and its sister paper the Daily Mirror have been doing repeatedly since I began giving evidence and am being subjected to cross-examination in the ‘White Flag’ case.
This, they have done, despite their own court reporter (The Daily Mirror) having admitted and apologized to me in court for having carried factually incorrect reports not once but twice when he wrote his copy based on evidence I had given in court.
Despite my having first spoken with Champika Liyanaarachchi (whose first reaction was to say she would indeed carry a front page apology) and Lal Wickrematunge having brought it to the notice of Ranjit Wijewardene – no correction was carried nor an apology.  A clear violation of  Section 3. CORRECTIONS and APOLOGIES — the document you constantly tout to us all from the “Code of Professional Practice (Code of Ethics) of The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka adopted by the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka.” Wherein Article, 3.1. states, quote:
“Where it is recognised by the editor that a report was incorrect in a material respect, it should be corrected promptly and with due prominence and with an apology where appropriate, except where the correction or apology is against the wishes of the aggrieved party.” Obviously in this case for reasons I cannot understand Ms. Liyanaarachchi despite her own reporter admitting he had indeed misquoted what had been said in court when I gave evidence thought it fit to simply ignore what had been not one but two factually incorrect reports.  For reasons best known to themselves she thereafter together with her colleague Sinha Ratnatunge, Editor of The Sunday Times continued to publish reports that were both misleading and detrimental to my professional reputation and credibility.
The Sunday Leader in the last 17 years of its existence (15 of those years under the stewardship of Lasantha Wickrematunge) has always had a strained and bitter relationship with the Editors Guild.  Mainly because in 1999, when the presses of The Sunday Leader were sealed, as a result of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga abusing her power as the executive, the Guild did not see it fit to issue a statement of condemnation.  Lasantha, as a result, quit his membership of the Guild while Lal Wickrematunge left the Newspaper Publishers Society.
That position remained until I took over as Editor in March last year.  I was then afforded an explanation (a lame one at that) that the reason the Guild had not issued a statement back in 1999 was because that task had been left to Victor Ivan – Editor of the Ravaya to do but that Victor lost his mother simultaneously and so the statement never got out.   If indeed, that suffices as an explanation it only serves to enhance how pathetically inept the Editors’ Guild has and always will be.
Nevertheless, I was determined to put the past behind us and move forward and so made a genuine and sincere effort to mend fences. A firm believer that united we stand – divided we fall.  But I have since learnt as did Lasantha that unity, principles and ethics are words merely bandied about by those very editors who preach good governance and high moral practices every week in their editorials.  In practice they mean nothing.
At The Sunday Leader we have been attacked no less than nine times, our presses burnt down twice, finally culminating with our founder Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge being assassinated in January 2009. As you are aware, the threats and intimidation did not stop. During the year 2009 not only did my staff and I continue to receive death threats but lawyers representing us in courts were branded “traitors” and terrorists by members of this regime.
All of this has only served to strengthen our fortitude and willpower to continue at The Sunday Leader. That this newspaper continues to print weekly is nothing short of extraordinary. We do so with no help, encouragement or support from any of our erstwhile colleagues in the media.
We remain strong, unbowed and unafraid when most men – particularly some of those in the current Editors Guild would have been running as fast as their legs would carry them to different climes.  And haven’t we had evidence of that! So, in a nutshell, Manik, I no longer wish to be member of a body that is not only irresponsible and pathetically ineffective but also hypocritical to its very core.  And that was amply demonstrated when you as President of this body and all of its members did not have the courage to stand tall and admit a panel of judges chosen by you had failed to read criteria laid down in black and white when choosing nominees for the Journalism Awards For Excellence  2009.
A fact, you did not have the courtesy to acknowledge or respond to when I wrote you three months ago. Indeed, the very idea of my continuing as a member of this Guild is repugnant particularly so when the so called defenders of free media are selling their right to freedom for a mess of pottage, to a government that has consistently intimidated the media into submission or silence and does little to uphold democratic values, nay even simply human values.

Frederica Jansz
The Sunday Leader

Lal Wickrematunge – Chairman – Leader Publications Pvt. Ltd.
Ranjit Wijewardene – Chairman – Wijeya Group of Newspapers
Sundara Nihathamani de Mel – Editor – Irida Lakbima
V. Thanabalasingham – Editor – Thinakkural
Sinha Ratnatunge – Editor – The Sunday Times
Siri Ranasinghe – Editor – Lankadeepa
Bandula Padmakumara – Chairman – Lake House
Mohanlal Piyadasa – Editor – Iruresa
Victor Ivan – Editor – Ravaya
Gamini Sumanasekera – Editor – Irida Divaina
Ariyananda Dombagahawatte – Editor – Irida Lankadeepa
V. Thevarajah – Editor – Sunday Virakesari
Nisthar Cassim – Editor – Daily Financial Times
Prabath Sahabandu – Editor – The Island
Jatila Wellaboda – Editor – Lakbima
R. Prabhagan – Editor – Virakesari
Rajpaal Abeynayake – Editor – LakbimaNews
Gamini Abeywardena – Editor – The Nation/Bottom Line
Champika Liyanaarachchi – Editor – The Daily Mirror
A Sanctimonious Humbug!
I congratulate the fearless Sunday  Leader paper for the inside story on the so called Capri Club scandal. An editor shown the door for cadging drinks at a club of which he is not even a member then attacks that club in his very newspaper! If anybody else did such a thing the newspapers would cry blue murder. Is this fair and reasonable journalism? Should an editor settle personal grudges in a public forum like a newspaper?
The Wijewardenes did this when they had monopolistic  control of the media in the 1950s and ‘60s by way of the Lake House. They openly promoted relatives and friends to public office while incessantly attacking national forces including all left opinions. Now the rump group is doing the same. But having earned the wrath of the progressive forces by its earlier policies now this group is pretending to be a Sinhala-Buddhist  voice. Today it  utilises all its resources to bolster the moribund fortunes of Ranil Wickremesinghe while trying to create a national figure of a social knockabout like Ruwan Wijewardene who is being forced down the parched throat of the long suffering UNP. But can people like Ranil, Ruwan and Sinha be considered true voices of national feelings?
Can such journalism be considered honest press? In a media culture driven by cynical personal agendas, unscrupulous editors who spend their time pretending to gather so called  “hot news” at run-down clubs late in the night are king makers, or should I say aspirants to “lion” status.

Thank you Sunday Leader for exposing this false lion.

Nihal De Saram