“The Truth Can Be Adjusted” – Communications and media censorship in Sri Lanka

I watched the brilliant Michael Clayton yesterday, a movie with a tagline that’s deeply resonant in Sri Lanka.

The obnoxious Sri Lankan President and his government, over the course of 2007 and particularly this year, has censored media and communications in Sri Lanka violently and with complete impunity, adjusting the “Truth” as they see it so that no other critical narrative or analysis sees the light of day.

The most recent edict from the Government curtailing communications came on our “independence day” when SMS communications were shut off. As Rohan Samarajiva from Lirneasia notes:

The lack of strong opposition to their censorious actions has now led the government to take another step: to shut down SMS use on Independence morning. Censorship is coming close to home.

Mobile or fixed phones (the million plus CDMA phones can also for this while people are moving around) can be used to convey messages and coordinate actions. So can SMS. If the government believes that SMS poses a security threat, it should come out and tell us exactly what that threat is, before shutting down a service we have paid for and are entitled to use.

The Telecommunications Act lays down specific provisions for these kinds of actions. I want to know whether these lawful provisions were followed. Were these provisions followed when the phone networks were shut down for long periods in the North and the East?

If not, the actions taken last night to shut down SMS were unlawful. The shutting down of the phone networks in the North and East were illegal. I believe that it is necessary to protest these unlawful and arbitrary actions if we are to prevent the extension of the Great Firewall to this country as well. Otherwise we will not end up like China; our fate will be that of Burma. (Emphasis mine)

In February 2007, Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) severely restricted communications to the embattled Jaffna Peninsula and mobile communications were frequently cut off in the Eastern Province. Hans Wijesuriya failed to give me a straight answer to an explicit question I posed to him last year as to why Dialog Telekom (with no written instruction) supinely complied to the Government’s diktat’s to curtail communications. The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Director General, Kanchana Ratwatte, as reported here, thinks it is “routine” to shut off communications during major military offensives, with absolutely no emphasis on or interest in the full and quick restoration of services.Access to Tamilnet continues to be blocked by all major ISPs in Sri Lanka and can only be accessed by way of proxies.

Accordingly and with due respect to Rohan, asking the Rajapakse administration to justify its actions as lawful is a complete and utter waste of time. Gotabaya Rajapakse actions alone against media freedom and media personnel is a case in point of the futility of any sort of constructive dialogue with this government on media freedom. In April 2007, he made a vicious phone call threatening the Editor of the leading English newspaper The Daily Mirror.

Nothing was done.

This month he openly stated that media has to be censored and criminal defamation brought back.

No official clarification regarding his statement or retraction was made.

The utter fiasco regarding the outrageous behaviour of the unfortunately animated lump of bovine excrement that is Mervyn Silva and its incredible aftermath is another indication that the President himself is scarce interested in any sort of action that holds to account, and keep in check, actions that erode media freedom and seriously erode the safety and security of journalists.

And this is just scratching the surface of what the President, his vicious brothers and a coterie of brutish thugs and acquiescent apparatchiks have done to significantly erode media freedom and curtail free communications within and between communities in Sri Lanka since they assumed office in late 2005. It is quite simply the emergence of the same savage intolerance for critical opinions and dissent that we find in the LTTE’s approach to and understanding of media in territories under their control.

Finally, it also occurs to me that ICTA‘s raison d’etre as the the apex ICT body of the State and an agency that promotes and promises, through communications, stronger and more effective governance mechanisms can be seriously questioned in light of egregious Government censorship and media repression. For every single project and initiative ICTA touts as yet another groundbreaking example of e-government that empowers communities, this President and his government have been directly responsible for significantly undermining democratic governance by flagrantly violating fundamental rights of citizens and entire communities.

The truth can indeed be adjusted. In Sri Lanka today, the only “truth” is that which the President countenances. Every other counter narrative is stamped out, with a vengeance rivalling that of the LTTE at the height of its power and hubris.

It’s difficult to think of ICT for peacebuilding when, much like Burma, you have to deal with a State hell bent on shutting you up. Groundviews, Vikalpa, VOR Radio and Vikalpa Video are, amongst others, four significant initiatives I created to maintain the space for critical dialogues. I don’t know how long I have before the likes of Gotabaya or Mervyn decide that they too are not kosher against a reprehensible Chintanaya that simply trucks no dissent.

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