Abuse of media and abusing media
BY Sugeeswara Senadhira
The month of June was initially focused on the aftermath of the cabinet reshuffle and the allocation of institutions to different ministries. However, the media attention, together with the public interest was soon diverted to an issue with Minister John Amaratunga abusing media personnel with filth – or should I merely say unparliamentarily language? – and with President Maithripala Sirisena recalling how the media was abused during the Nov-Dec 2014- January 2015 Presidential election campaign.
These two incidents brought to the limelight once again, the imperative need for media ethics and professionalism on one hand and the need to end the political authoritarianism, impunity and high handedness on the other.
President Sirisena, speaking at the Independent Television Network (ITN), recalled that when he participated at the Presidential Election as the common candidate, the state media were used in the most abusive and unethical manner to attack him. He said no other Presidential candidate or any national politician faced such allegations that were levelled against him at that time, and emphasized that such kind of immoral media usage should not happen again in the future of this country.
The President also recalled the disinformation campaign unleashed by the state media and said that a woman and a child was brought to the ITN studios and they were trained to sling mud at him during the height of the election campaign.
The President pointed out that a superior political culture could be built only through a better media usage and said that all the media institution heads, their management, and the journalists should commit themselves to fulfil their duties and responsibilities in a free media environment. He added that the Government media institutions should take the lead in creating an ethical as well as a qualitative media culture in the country.
When the head of State gives such an assurance to the media that his government would not allow media to attack anybody, the shameful behaviour of a Cabinet Minister of his government, though not belonging to the President's party, shocked the nation.
All those who watch television news saw the footage on Tourism Development and Christian Affairs Minister John Amaratunga's ill behaviour. He was caught on camera scolding and apparently attempting to assault a journalist, when the latter asked him a question. Media organizations, political parties, trade unions, human rights organizations and society leaders were unanimous in condemning this horrid conduct of affairs by a senior minister of a government that came to power on the promise that it would ensure good governance, including media freedom.
In a desperate and futile attempt of damage control, the minister's press secretary had issued a statement claiming that the minister was provoked by the journalists owing to their uncomfortable questions and that media had not been invited for the event.
Those who witnessed the incident on television saw Minister Amaratunga sitting at the head table and answering questions posed by the journalists before the incident. Hence, nobody will buy the story that the journalists were not invited to the event.
The minister was seen blowing his top when questioned about his alleged connection to the dumping of garbage in Bopitiya.
Instead of answering the question, he charged at the journalist shouting in filth. The impression of those who saw it on television was that minister became infuriated because he had something to hide. The question was about the garbage issue, which is matter of public importance as it continued to be a major issue that affects the public. Hence, the journalist had every right to question the minister.
Minister Amaratunga's rhetoric has tarnished the good governance image of the consensual government, which has taken many a step to enhance freedom of expression. The government has promulgated media friendly laws such as the Right to Information Act and appointed coordinating officers responsible to provide information to the public at every government ministry and public institution.
The new Minister of Finance and Mass Media Mangala Samaraweera said at the ITN function, the media field which had to face a massive crackdown in the past has been freed again and a free media culture which had not hitherto been witnessed is now prevailing in the country. Referring to this media freedom, Samaraweera rightly said that the person who paved the way for this media freedom, that is the President, is now being mostly abused. But he emphasized that no bans would be imposed due to such actions.
Minister Samaraweera also endorsed what the President said about the Government's desire to further nourish this media freedom and build a genuine free media culture, responsible for the country and the people.
While leaders like John Amaratunga should abide by the government's total commitment to media freedom, the media personnel too, must be aware of their professional ethics and responsibilities. As President Sirisena said, the media personnel should be dedicated to a moral media culture.The President said that those who steer the media, journalists and media management in every country are vested with a broad responsibility to build the nation and safeguard its future.
While recognizing the imperative need for enhancing media professionalism, top-notch leaders such as John Amaratunga should also be given a lesson on freedom of expression, media freedom and the right to information.
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