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Media censorship during times of peace

The Economist is known for its liberal views on economics, often conservative political opinions and lucid prose. To the touchy Lankan government, however, the British publication seems determined to paint a negative picture of the country and jeopardising national security. Sutirtho Patranobis reports.

world Updated: Sep 21, 2010 16:49 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

The Economist is known for its liberal views on economics, often conservative political opinions and lucid prose. To the touchy Lankan government, however, the British publication seems determined to paint a negative picture of the country and jeopardising national security. What else could explain the customs’ decision to impound two of its recent issues?

But since I’m secretly a rocket scientist, I managed to read both articles, pretty much uncensored on -- here goes -- the internet. There was no new criticism in either: hasn’t the government already being condemned for apparently furthering family rule and easing the country towards autocracy after the 18th amendment was passed? But it hurt. So the issues were temporarily withheld.

Iran, Zimbabwe and Singapore are other countries where the group has faced similar censure. Interestingly, it is possibly on the Singaporean Media Development Authority model that Lanka is planning to develop its own authority to regulate the media.

The Economist blockade was followed up by the BBC not being allowed to cover the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s (LLRC) proceedings at the former Tamil Tiger capital, Kilinochchi.

The citizen journalist initiative Groundviews.org called the actions ``utterly fatuous’’ in a ``country that apparently has no official policy on censorship – but is plagued by the arbitrary regulation and control of online content as well as print media.’’

It might seem arbitrary but because it’s happening over and over again, there seems to be a method. In May last year, copies of the Hindu newspaper’s Chennai edition were seized for carrying K Karunanidhi’s and J Jayalalithaa’s statements on Sri Lanka. At the same time, a Channel 4 reporter and his cameraperson were thrown out of the country for a four-minute story that sullied Lanka’s image.

Then there are numerous cases – I mean numerous -- where local reporters were killed and hounded by assailants for criticising the government and the government incarcerating few more for the same.

Fighting the enemy at war is one thing. Trying to kill dissenting views is another.

It’s a pity, and outright nasty, that 16 months after the war and at around the same time President Mahinda Rajapaksa is trying to put the country’s best foot forward at the UN general assembly, both are being treated as the same.