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President Maithripala Sirisena | (File photo)

Freedom of the press can be harsh sometimes. It can be most hard on politicians with prickly skin. Time and again we come across champions of free expression and media freedom having second thoughts once they are caught in the glare of public scrutiny. Freedom of expression, especially when it is freely given to the media can be a frightening tool, especially at the hands of the cynical and the irascible.

Let me rephrase that last sentence. Freedom of expression in the form of a free press MUST be a frightening tool for those basking in the public limelight and feeding at the public trough. A free press will scrutinize the public officials; question their judgement; demand explanation for their actions; demand accountability; and if found wanting on any of the above; excoriate those officials. That is the public official. That is their duty of the media. It is not the job of a free media to filter the flow of information and spin that information to fit the image the government in power is keen to project to the public.

Public officials are accountable to the public. Public media, in most cases, will speak on behalf of that public. Public officials are answerable, you got it; to the public. The media when acting as the agent of the public does not need to answer public officials. The difference is the difference between a free society and a society under the jackboot of a despot.

Recently, President Sirisena called the segment of the media not so friendly to his regime wild asses. In his mind, this segment of the media is unfair and unreasonable in their coverage of his government and his governance.

At the outset, it should be highlighted that since becoming the President in January, 2015 Maithripala Sirisena has loosened the restrictions imposed on the media by his predecessor. There is absolutely no doubt that the Sri Lankan media is a heck of a lot freer today than it was during the 9-year tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Hats off to Sirisena for bringing about this change.

Having acceded that to the President, his recent wild ass remarks do raise the question whether Sirisena is having second thoughts about his commitment to a press unhampered by the ham hand of the central government. Sirisena is a seasoned politician with over four decades of experience in the art of the possible. Sirisena and his local and foreign friends jumped on the free media band wagon when they took on the incumbent Rajapaksa at the last Presidential election.

They rode that wagon to the ground and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Sirisena-friendly/anti-Rajapaksa media organizations played a key hand in toppling Mahinda Rajapaksa The same media was relentless in attacking the incumbent and was adamant that every conceivable conspiracy, corrupt act, real and imagined breaking of the law during the Rajapaksa tenure was force fed to an eager public.

Even after Sirisena’s election, the relentless pursuit of Mahinda Rajapaksa, his friends and family members continued. Some of the wildest accusations came from members of Sirisena’s cabinet. In spite of the obvious spuriousness of the claims, they made the headlines and in many a case got extended coverage.

The recent UN report on Sri Lanka also highlighted the selectiveness of the government to make public information that would cast serious doubt on the 40,000 odd deaths during the last phase of the war against the LTTE. The head of the local commissions that dwelled into the matter was quite clear in his assessment that the 40,000 figure was a gross exaggeration. He said the figure was more likely around 7,000. However, this never got much traction or was not allowed to get much traction because it did not fit into Sirisena regime’s path to truth and reconciliation. There is also the issue of guaranteeing public’s right to information that is of relevance to the polity. Now we are left to believe that cause was also a casualty of political expediency.

Reading the tea leaves of Sirisena’s threat to media freedom, for that is what it is, one gets the creepy feeling that he is more the political coyote than the Yahapalakaya he says he is.

All politicians who come across power riding the high horse of free speech, media freedom and other human rights must accept that those rights are absolute. They do have limits, but those limits cannot be dictated by presidential fiat or a prickly skin. When the media gets under President Sirisena’s skin, they are doing their job well. It is the duty of the media to hold the feet of public officials to the fire till they can do no harm to what is public. There is nothing more treasonous than a media fawning over public officials and eternally singing hosannas to them.

The public is better served by wild-ass journalists than political wal-buruwas.