02 December 2012

Factoring ‘integrity’ into media freedom

The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka has issued a statement regarding a brutal attack on the Editor of Uthayan, T Thevananth ‘while covering an event at the Jaffna University’.   The missive, signed by Secretary Sundera Nihathamani De Mel, claims that the event was one where students were ‘commemorating those who died during the three decades long northern insurgency’. 

There are claims that this was not a ‘Maaveerar (Martyr’s Day)’ event, but a Hindu festival, Karthikai Deepam where lamps are lit and it was just a coincidence that the two (the first associated with the LTTE of course) fell on the same day, generating confusion as well as making for multiple (erroneous and mischievous) interpretation.  
Authorities claim that the LTTE is a banned organization and therefore LTTE-related commemorations are out of order.  Commemoration, however, does not require a party tag and no law can stop grieving, never mind the fact that grief is routinely used to bolster political projects.  Whatever the politics of the moment, Devananth has a right to observe and report.  If, as the authorities claim, the students provoked the fracas by throwing stones and Devananth was a victim of the melee, it is unfortunate.  Still, no one can argue that he should not have been there, regardless of his political affiliations, what he wishes to celebrate or lament, none of which is material to the issue at hand. 

In a separate incident another ‘journalist’, Sujeewa Samarasinghe was taken for questioning on Tuesday night (November 27th), held for several hours and released.  Now Samarasinghe is not exactly a journalist; he is Sarath Fonseka’s Media Coordinator, a legitimate occupation. 

Like all people, including journalists, Samarasinghe has to abide by the law.  If he transgresses, the law enforcement authorities have every right to apply relevant legal procedures.  If this was not done on this occasion it is less a matter of suppressing media freedom than one of treading on citizens’ rights enshrined in the constitution.
The distinction is important because people have multiple identities and one cannot pick and choose which ID to wave at which particular moment.  That’s convenience and is patently devoid of integrity. 

Devananth knows and Samarasinghe knows which identity-sliver was relevant.  Media rights advocates, if they have integrity (and the competence) should similarly strive to distinguish what’s what.  It doesn’t happen that way though.
The best example would be Sunanda Deshapriya.  His political affiliations and outcome-preferences are more important than his ‘Media ID’ but those who treat him as an authority on media freedom (rightly) do not worry about such things.  What is unconscionable is that such people ignore also his considerable track record as a petty thief and a fraud.  This is where the name ‘Sunanda Deshapriya’ just cannot hobnob with the word ‘integrity’ and not his close association with LTTE operatives, before and after the LTTE was militarily defeated.

Integrity is important.  Without integrity, media personnel are little better than petty political propagandists.  Take the case of BBC World Service Journalists Chandana Keerthi Bandara and its Colombo reporter Elmo Fernando applying for Rs. 1,200,000/- each as interest free loans from state banks to purchase cars or vans.  These are signatories to BBC contractual caveats pertaining to integrity, including acceptance of gifts which could compromise independence and objectivity in reporting.  Bandara, moreover, is associated with the dubious outfit that calls itself Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, with quite a reputation for spinning tall tales which naturally compromises the efficacy of commentary that is based on fact. 
What this does is that it makes the work of genuine advocates of media freedom (organized or otherwise) harder.  When such people talk of attacks on journalists (such as Devananth), it takes away something.  Both victim and advocacy are poorer for it. 

For now, though, let it be clear that just as no one, including journalists, is above the law, there is absolutely no way that any infringement on rights (of journalists or others) can be condoned.  There is a thing called due process.  People who have legitimate occupations must have the freedom to get about their work.  A cobbler has the right to mend shoes.  A journalist has the right to write about anything he/she considers newsworthy or requiring commentary.  He/she has the right to go where ‘news’ may be ‘happening’.  He cannot be stopped.  Devananth was stopped.  This is wrong.