A New-Model Totalitarian

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Not long before Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga was killed six months ago, his brother Lal, chairman of the Leader Group of newspapers, received a call from a deputy minister in the Sri Lankan Government, Faiser Musthapa.

Faiser said he would be coming to Lal’s office with some important news. His car arrived, and he asked Lal to get in, telling him that they could talk while driving. Lal, nonplussed, did as he was told. Faiser ordered his driver to drive on. Behind them followed a vehicle full of security personnel. Suddenly, the cars turned into the driveway of a large house where a most senior figure in the Sri Lankan Government was residing. Lal was ushered inside. "How are you Lal?" said the powerful personage. "Let’s come to the point straight away. What is the selling price of Leader Publications?" Lal didn’t understand what was happening. "Let’s close the deal for 400 million rupees," the person said. He told Lal to make a decision quickly.

When Lasantha, who had been overseas at the time, returned to Sri Lanka, Lal told him what had happened. Lasantha was furious. The proposal went ignored.

Has this story come out in the media? No. Why was the story not published? Because of the terrified self-censorship practiced by the Sri Lankan media as a result of the constant abductions, killings and other forms of pressure placed upon them.

For Lasantha, who refused to sell his paper to the Government, the consequence was that his printing press was set on fire, and he was subsequently murdered. It’s clear that the powerful Government figure wanted to silence him by offering to buy the newspaper at a price far above its real value. As already mentioned here on newmatilda.com, the Government had already slandered Lasantha, calling him a "terrorist journalist" during an interview with Reporters Without Borders.

Lasantha’s office and his printing press were located near the Air Force Camp in the high-security zone. He was shot dead near a security checkpoint. Six months have elapsed since Lasantha’s murder but the police have not yet forwarded a report of their investigation to the Courts.

Under President Rajapaksa’s regime we have seen an extraordinary consolidation of the country’s newspapers under the control of the Government and of Government-associated figures. The Rivira Media Company owned the Nation, Bottom Line and Rivira. Now, Prasanna Wickramasuriya, the Chief of the Civil Aviation Air Port Services Authority has bought 51 per cent of its shares and respected journalists have resigned.

The pressure upon the media is often more direct than through mere ownership. Keath Noyar, deputy editor at the Nation was abducted and mercilessly beaten. Upali Tennakoon, chief editor of the Rivira was also beaten. Lalith Alahakoon, chief editor of the Nation, was offered a diplomatic posting in Pakistan as a consul, then sacked a day after he started work.

The President has benefited from the neutralisation of other opposition too. Thilanga Sumathipala, who owns the Daily Lakbima, Lakbima and Sunday Lakbima and was an organiser for the main opposition party, is now apparently organising for the ruling party instead.

The Siyatha newspaper is owned by Chrishantha Kariyapperuma, whose brother, Priyantha Kariyapperuma, is the head of Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, and whose wife, the popular actress Sangeetha Weerarathne, is part of the President’s inner circle of associates. Before the Siyatha newspaper was established I was offered the position of chief editor through proxies, with a monthly salary of Rs100,000 ($1100) plus other benefits. It was three times the salary I was earning. After I refused, four of our press freedom activists did accept senior posts in that newspaper but resigned within three months after it was established over issues of editorial independence.

The long list of publications now closely associated with the Government makes distressing reading.

Island, Sunday Island, Divaina and Irida Divaina are owned by Nimal Welgama, whose brother Kumara Welgama is a senior minister of the President’s cabinet.

The country’s largest newspaper company, which publishes the Observer, Daily News, Silumina, Dinamina and Thinakaran, is owned by the state and therefore under the control of the President.

The second-largest newspaper company, the Times Group is owned by Ranjith Wijewardane, an uncle of the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickramasinghe, but I have serious doubts that even this company is managing to resist the Government’s influence.

Tamil newspapers are under special pressure, and since last week Uthayan and Sudar Oli have received threats from an unidentified source demanding that they cease publication. The Government has form here too: in March the editor of both newspapers was abducted and later the police admitted he had in fact been arrested.

Other small newspapers are also under pressure and remain very vulnerable to the influence a government can exert via the money it can choose to spend on advertising in these papers — or not. The management of company debt and taxes, and the level of financial support these companies receive from state banks are further ways in which government can exert control in Sri Lanka.

In a cruel irony, before he became President, Rajapaksa used to be called a "reporter" by former president Chandrika Kumaratunge, who accused him of leaking cabinet secrets and political gossip to the media. For this he became known as a "friend of the media".

Today, Sri Lanka is veering towards totalitarianism. Although there are aspects of the Sri Lankan Constitution that arguably make it susceptible to a totalitarian shift, these characteristics are not in themselves sufficient to produce a totalitarian state. For that the media would have to be silenced and the people led up the garden path. Until now, Sri Lanka has not suffered from the extreme concentration of media control that plagues some other countries — notably Italy — and it has managed so far to avoid what is increasingly referred to in media circles as "the Berlusconi effect". Yet it is clear that the President of Sri Lanka is taking a leaf out of the Italian Prime Minister’s book. Under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan media industry will soon be facing a situation similar to that in Italy.

After defeating the Tamil Tigers, the President told the world that he would come up with his own new solution for the nationalism issue, and that other countries could help, but that criticism — particularly from Western countries — wasn’t welcome. Further, he said there are only two groups of people in Sri Lanka: those who are patriotic and those who are unpatriotic.

Rajapaksa’s new solution to the nationalism question is to make the country totalitarian. Granted, it’s not going to be identical to the other totalitarian models on offer — such as the Soviet, Chinese, Burmese, Iranian or Libyan models.

It will be the Sri Lankan Mahinda Rajapaksa model.

New Matilda

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