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Sri Lanka’s new President has a plan for everything, except media reform

Can the country rediscover free expression?

Screen At Maithripala Sirisena's Inauguration, Flickr by Indi Samarajiva

All kinds of newspaper columnists’ tropes slide easily into a review of Sri Lankan opposition coalition candidate Maithripala Sirisena’s unexpected and virtually peaceful election win over incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa last week.

"Strong tests have been set" for the new president, "the first 100 days" have been found to be key, his coalition "will be fragile" and "time will tell", but "let us hope wise counsel will prevail". Here, for once, they appear to be appropriate. On these hackneyed lines rest the future of freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.

Sirisina and his new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe began their list of 100 tasks in 100 days by ordering the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to stop blocking independent news websites banned by the old regime.

Sirisena also pledged an end to the lethal "disappearances" that have made the country an Asian byword for media repression. He promises to use his new authority to investigate the 2009 murder of combative political journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, whose killers are still free. Sri Lankan journalists should feel, “Free to report whatever you want without the fear of being abducted,” he says.

In an open letter to Rajapaksa on the eve of elections, Wickrematunge’s widow Sonali Samarasinghe wrote: "At no time in the history of our country has the freedom of expression so brutally been repressed as it is now. Such media as do operate in the country have been transformed either into propaganda mouthpieces for you and your brothers, or bullied into submission."

Yet while pledging to restore media freedoms in general, there’s a sense of tokenism in Sirisena’s vows. There was no matching commitment to identify the killers of cartoonist Prageeth Eknelygoda, who went missing five years ago, or the forces behind the notorious ‘white van’ abductions during the Rajapaksa era.

“There are many incidents of killings of journalists, attacks, harassment, intimidation, burning of presses, cancelling of radio licences,” says Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, editor of the formerly banned online Colombo Telegraph. “It is not only Lasantha’s murder,” he recently told the International Press Institute.

Much depends on the willingness of the next Chief Justice to challenge impunity and restore the independence of Sri Lankan courts, undermined, say Sirisena’s supporters, by current Chief Justice Mohan Peiris. The new leadership has already vowed to remove Peiris, but changing the judiciary’s culture will take time.

Committee to Protect Journalists(CPJ) says Sri Lanka has the fourth worst record on its 2014 Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered and the killers remain free. Many of those killed in Sri Lanka were political reporters critical of the government.

A fair investigation into the old regime’s repression and the deaths of at least nine journalists would have to rely on a full truth and reconciliation process. But this is not on Sirisena’s agenda. The new president had a key leadership role in Rajapakse’s cabinet, especially in the closing days of the war against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), which finished with a bloody series of air and artillery attacks that killed thousands of civilians.

Sirisena’s 100 day action plan and accompanying National Policy Framework list of 100 targets include several vague but ambitious concessions to calls for greater freedom of expression rights, including a Right to Information Bill to be introduced to parliament on Friday, 20 February and passed within three weeks.

Other steps pledge the lifting of “hindrances” to civil society groups (number 88), a culture “that safeguards and values the independence and artistic integrity of practitioners of the arts” (number 89), and the strengthening of “the right to freedom of thought and expression” (number 91).

Wi-fi, says the plan, “will be made available free of charge in Centres in every town to facilitate Internet access.” (number 33). The commitment to “Both immediate and long term measures… to safeguard the independence of media personnel and institutions,” comes in at number 90.

Kurukulasuriya, who went into exile after Wickrematunge’s murder, urges action to break the grip of the political appointees heading the country’s major public and private media companies. The co-option of the owners was the subtler side of the old regime’s media control. Time will tell whether the government goes on reading ‘media freedom’ as about owners’ rights, not journalists’ rights.

“The previous Rajapaksa regime changed the ownerships of several media institutions through intimidation,” says Kurukulasuriya. Self-censorship drove the majority; more deadly means of censorship were reserved for the small cadres of independent journalists who could not be bought or fired.

The state media’s job is to “[R]eflect the line of whatever government is in power,” admitted Rajpal Abeynayake, the editor of the state-run Daily News in a memorable post-election quote to the Guardian’s Amantha Perera. “If the government changes, so does the newspaper. It’s as simple as that. If they want to change that practice they could, but so far no government has done it.”

Sirisena is showing no inclination to change matters. The chairman of the state-owned Lake House newspaper group, morning news show anchor and well documented supporter of the Rajapakse family, Bandula Padmakumara, was quick to go, just a few hours after the presidential election results came in. But few others seem to have followed him.

Sirisena will be slow to reform the fundamental structure of the island’s media because he may have to rely on these established partners in self-censorship to help shore up Wickremesinghe’s premiership if, as promised, he reduces the executive powers of the presidency so assiduously built up by Rajapakse.

Sirisena’s coalition is fragile, sprawling and diverse, noted Ellen Barry and Dharisha Bastians for The New York Times, “including Buddhist nationalists, Marxists and centre-right politicians, among others." He will hold a general election after the dissolving of parliament on 23 April, when older favours may be called in. Rajapakse is not going away quietly either, and aims to heap the pressure on the coalition.

Rajapakse’s brother and former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and Chief Justice Peiris, are being accused of plotting to declare a state of emergency as early results revealed the prospect of their defeat.

Keeping the media focus on the plot, which Rajapakse denies, will keep the focus off the new government’s pledges to reduce the impact of austerity measures that followed the IMF’s extension of a $2.6 billion loan – pledges to increase food, fuel and farming subsidies and raise public employees’ salaries that will be hard to keep.

Keeping track of political change, economic threats, constitutional reform, an election and keeping safe from a generation of assassins long used to impunity would be a challenge for any nation’s media. When the media itself needs reform the problems seem overwhelming. This is why the country needs a fully-fledged media commission to ensure freedom of expression can be properly defended.

Yet under Sirisena’s 100-day plan to reverse Rajapakse’s legacy, the list of reform commissions due to be covered by a 19th Amendment to the constitution does not include one on the media, only on the judiciary, police, public services, elections, human rights and corruption.

International and regional media rights groups need to heap pressure of their own on Sirusena’s new media ministry secretary, Karunarathna Paranawithana, a self-styled (on his Facebook page) ‘diplomat, journalist (and) political activist’.

Kurukulasuriya thinks it’s unfortunate that the new government will not establish a media commission, but that it was deliberate. “They are not willing to transform state media into (independent) public service broadcasters, and they don’t want to broad-base the state-owned Lake House newspaper group.”

But without greater independence the Sri Lankan media will not be able to fairly and accurately report the upcoming election. The appointment of a reform commission for the media next month would not do much to change this situation in time for an election call in April, however it would send a clear message to embattled journalists that change is on the agenda and risks are worth taking.

According to Sirisena’s strict schedule, his administration will establish the independent commissions on Wednesday 18 February. There’s still time to add one on media to the list. Let us hope "wise counsel will prevail".

Rohan Jayasekera is a journalist and online producer, developing investigative journalism and creative advocacy projects in conflict zones and repressive states. Formerly the deputy CEO of Index on Censorship and before that, managing editor of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, he has reported from conflicts in Bosnia, Palestine, Afghanistan & Iraq.

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