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Media made a scapegoat for political errors

By Neville de Silva

TRUTH, it has been said, is the first casualty in war. When US Senator Hiram Johnson uttered this sad truth he was doubtless thinking of the misinformation and disinformation practised in times of armed conflicts.

But it is not only in war that truth suffers. Nor is it the only casualty. The media becomes one too, and often war is but a convenient excuse to tame a critical media that won't readily yield to the dictates of government.

Five centuries before Christ, the Greek poet Euripides said of the purveyors of news of his time ``To give me information is thy office''. The task of the media remains essentially the same today, though it has become more complicated by time and history.

Naturally, the media in authoritarian societies are in greater danger of being brought to heel, if they have not already been cowed down by repression or threats of repression. Regimes that have a dubious legitimacy, if they have any at all, have more to be afraid of an independent and unbending media than those who govern with the will of the people.

This is to be expected. But the covert danger to the media comes from those political leaderships in democratic societies which, like the ancient Roman god Janus, wear two faces. One face it shows the public when out of power and the other when in power.

I raise this issue with very good reason. My week in Sri Lanka was climaxed by an unfortunate and dangerous threat by the country's President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, fast acquiring a reputation for intemperate and unthinking utterances.

It was bad enough when President Kumaratunga threatened to shut down the private media, both print and electronic. It was doubly dangerous when she reportedly threatened to do so on the advice of the military.

When an elected president (with an unprecedented 62 per cent of the vote too) who led a socialist coalition which promised the country a free media, untrammelled by the heavy hand of government, wants to leave it to the military to decide matters that should remain essentially in the civilian domain, then it is time for all to take serious note.

The military, no doubt, has a vital task to perform in Sri Lanka today, unlike the principally ceremonial role it played until about 20 years ago. That is to protect the integrity of the nation from armed Tamil secessionists.

But to entrust the military with not just a civilian task but one that would necessarily entail the curtailment of fundamental rights _ freedom of expression and of the press _ is to inject the military into civil society.

It is equally obnoxious when simple-minded political decisions outweigh strategic thinking and military prudence. The occupation of Jaffna, the northern capital of the Tamil Tiger separatists, late last year was surely a political decision rather than a military one.

Sri Lanka's armed forces and public have had to pay bitterly for that ill-conceived decision. Having committed the military to holding territory in Jaffna thereby spreading it thinly, the government is now trying to cover up the latest military debacle in northeast Mullaitivu.

Two weeks after almost the entire garrison there was wiped out and the sophisticated weaponry removed by the Tamil Tigers, the government continued to keep parliament and the people in the dark on the worst military defeat.

Instead of directing her ire at the Tigers, President Kumaratunga turns her guns on the media for purportedly demoralising the military.

It is not the media but politicians playing tin soldiers and generals that have demoralised the military, if at all.

Now President Kumaratunga is hoping to sweep under the carpet her government's political and military foolhardiness by trying to use the military to punish the media for exposing her sheer inability to govern.

President Kumaratunga and her advisers should heed these words of the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero: ``An army is of little value in the field unless there are wiser counsels at home.''

Meanwhile the opposition United National Party intends to campaign against this latest threat to the media.

One could have had greater faith in the UNP's concern for a free press if it had shown during its 17 years in government the concern it begins to show in opposition.

In politics, the two-faced Janus is everywhere.

Neville de Silva is the Hong Kong Standard's Assistant Editor.

9 August 1996

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