Partisan Journalism and the Cycle of Repression
by Bob Dietz and Shawn W. Crispin
Lal Wickramatunga’s family and publishing house, Leader Publications, have paid dearly in Sri Lanka’s highly charged political climate. While Leader’s newspapers, including the weekly Sunday Leader, are widely known for tough, independent reporting, they have been caught up in a partisan media environment, one filled with violence and censorship. Wickramatunga’s brother has been murdered, his company has been sued, and his journalists face intimidation.
THE PRESS: 2010
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“The media in Sri Lanka are largely partisan,” says Wickramatunga, who traces the evolution of the country’s press, in part, to a history of government manipulation and repression. Now, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government is exploiting the situation, citing partisan news coverage as justification for imposing sweeping restrictions. “The media have simply buckled down in the last year,” says Wickramatunga, “and are toeing the government line or simply censoring themselves.”
What happens when politics gets hot and heavy, and the news media openly pick sides? Those conditions have been exposed in the raw in Sri Lanka and Thailand, where politicians have fomented polarization in the media, used state or partisan outlets to advance their own agendas, and then exploited the environment to justify restrictions on all media, including critical independent outlets.
Both nations share characteristics that have helped create partisan media. They each have strong state media operations that aggressively promote the current administration’s views, and they each have a long history of repressing critical independent media. In Thailand, the presence of powerful, moneyed political figures willing to bankroll their own media operations has further fueled this partisan climate. In Sri Lanka, the manipulation of public advertising to reward allies and punish critics has had the effect of marginalizing independent media. In this environment, some outlets have gone beyond partisanship to become media arms of political operations. At the same time, the government and its supporters have come to equate all criticism with political opposition.
In Sri Lanka, three decades of brutal internal warring with Tamil separatists ended in 2009, only to be followed by a political battle royale between Rajapaksa, the president who led the country to victory, and Sarath Fonseka, the general who won the war on the battlefield. In the January 2010 presidential elections, with the fighting well over, nearly all Sri Lankan journalists and their media outlets lined up behind one candidate or the other. Journalists fought their candidate’s political battles and sometimes each other, denouncing colleagues by name.
Thailand’s exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, used satellite television and the Internet to combat the government’s domination of broadcast media, present his movement’s political agenda, and stir massive political unrest. Programming, sometimes incendiary, was aired live from a stage erected in the center of Bangkok by protesters with the Thaksin-aligned United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or UDD, an anti-government protest group. Ninety-one people were killed, including two foreign journalists, and 1,800 were injured in the violence between government troops and armed protesters in April and May.
The fallout for the press was significant in both countries. Individual journalists were targeted with violence and imprisonment, which led to wider self-censorship. The Thai government disingenuously used the cover of emergency rule and media “reform” to close thousands of politically oriented websites. Sri Lanka began imposing a system to restrict election coverage and hold tight rein on media licensing. In both countries, the work of press freedom defenders was complicated as some media blurred the lines between journalism and political operations.
The presence of partisan media is hardly unique in the region. In India, a multiplicity of views has enabled partisan media to thrive, although individual reporters have been attacked. Bangladeshi journalists have also been assaulted on a partisan basis, but violence has ebbed in recent years as the split between the two ruling families has simmered. Pakistan’s historically partisan print media have been bolstered by the expansion of broadcast media, which have added to the range of views.
The Philippines boasts a vibrant independent press, but it also offers a lesson in partisanship. The advent of “block time” broadcasting, in which commentators lease time from private radio stations, has enabled local politicians and their surrogates to air harsh political programming aimed at attacking opponents. Numerous block time commentators have been killed in retaliation, CPJ research showed.
In politics and media, polarization is deeply entrenched in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa not only won the presidency, but his Sri Lanka Freedom Party, in a coalition called the United People’s Freedom Alliance, took a large majority in April’s parliamentary elections. As for Fonseka, in September a military court convicted him of politicized fraud charges. He was stripped of his rank and sentenced to 30 months in prison with hard labor.
Prabath Sahabandu, editor of The Island daily, told CPJ that his paper’s pro-Rajapaksa stance was a natural fit: “This government was preoccupied with the war effort and we were also campaigning against terrorism as a newspaper. On this particular issue, we saw eye to eye. So we didn’t have the problems that other newspapers had.” The Island is allied with the winning side now, but Sahabandu said it hadn’t always been that way. He said a series of administrations going back to the 1970s had harassed the paper, including pressuring its creditors and printers. “So we have had problems with the government in the past, too,” he said.
In this partisan climate, all news outlets that criticize the government–including Wickramatunga’s more independent publications–are seen as political enemies. And they have faced the harshest of reprisals. On a weekday morning in January 2009, eight men on four motorcycles attacked Wickramatunga’s brother, Lasantha, editor-in-chief of Leader’s weekly Sunday Leader, on a busy street just outside Colombo. Wielding metal and wooden poles, they beat him to death. The case has gone unsolved, and CPJ research shows that the government has failed to wage a proper investigation. Lasantha Wickramatunga, one of the country’s most senior journalists, was known for his critical reporting on the government.
For his part, Lal Wickramatunga is facing a defamation case stemming from a series of Sunday Leader articles in 2008 that detailed alleged irregularities in arms and aircraft purchases. Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the president, is seeking 1 billion rupees (nearly US$9 million) in damages–a figure large enough to bankrupt the company. The case was pending in late year.
Endemic problems have helped foster media partisanship, says Wickramatunga, whose Leader Publications prints journals in English and Sinhala. “In many ways, I do feel our media are partisan out of compulsion. The revenue from advertising and other contracts from the government–the government is the biggest business in Sri Lanka–depends on how close to the regime one is.” Government-paid advertising–legal notices, calls for bids for contracts, public service announcements, and the like–are a significant source of revenue for newspapers. The threat of losing government advertising has long been a way to convince editors to soften a political line, ease up on critical reporting, or take sides against a politician’s opponents.
Access to media has also fueled partisanship. “Traditionally, the political opposition had little or no access to radio or TV coverage,” said one Sri Lankan journalist who asked not to be identified while discussing a sensitive issue. As a result, political parties took to the private print media to express their views.
Sri Lanka has a muscular state media operation. The government owns Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation’s two channels and runs the Independent Television Network’s one channel. It owns 75 percent of the shares in Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, more commonly known as Lake House, which publishes 13 daily, weekly, and monthly publications in English, Sinhala, and Tamil. The government also runs a news agency, Lankapuwath, and maintains a website. Online, the Ministry of Defense is particularly active, delivering a stream of opinions and information, sometimes denouncing journalists by name. The site is seen as a platform for Defense Secretary Rajapaksa, who is known to label his critics as “traitors.”
Such messages contribute to a dark climate of fear and violence. Prageeth Eknelygoda, a pro-Fonseka political reporter and cartoonist for the Lanka eNews website, disappeared on the night of January 24, two days before the presidential election. Authorities did nothing to locate him or identify who was behind his disappearance, his wife said. The publisher of Lanka eNews, Sandaruwan Senadheera, later fled to England in fear for his life. CPJ counted 19 Sri Lankan journalists in exile in 2010, many of whom have abandoned hopes of ever returning home.
In Rajapaksa-era Sri Lanka, the process of legitimizing media suppression is well under way. The 18th Amendment, recently passed by parliament, abolishes presidential term limits and expands government control of media during elections. It gives the president power to appoint a three-member Elections Commission that will issue campaign coverage guidelines to both state and privately owned media. Under the previous provision, the commission regulated only government-run media. This “could amount to strangling any form of dissent, free expression, independent opinion, or even an opposition viewpoint at election time,” according to one media professional who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from the government.
And though its title sounds innocuous, the draft for what would be called a Media Development Authority is being blocked into shape. According to an early version, the agency would be tasked with “ensuring clear, consistent, and predictable regulatory policies and guidelines to protect core values and safeguard public interests.” The plan is modeled on the media regulatory agency in Singapore, a nation known for its restrictive press policies.
The government is also drafting licensing regulations for private television stations, Internet service providers, and telephone networks, which, with their ability to transmit text messages and images, are set to become influential media platforms. The proposed regulations, expected to come before parliament in 2011, are a scaled-down version of those the government sought to introduce in late 2009, which placed restrictions on news telecasts as well as other material disseminated over the Internet.
In Thailand, print publications, community radio stations, Internet sites, and a television station aligned with Thaksin were accused of inciting violence. Video clips from the pro-Thaksin D-Station, for example, show UDD leader Arisman Pongruangrong urging protesters in Chiang Mai province to bring tanks of gasoline to Bangkok to burn the city down. UDD leader Nattawut Saikua was broadcast live on D-Station urging protesters to loot and burn a shopping mall next to the group’s protest site, Human Rights Watch reported. The mall was later torched and looted; Nattawut was held on possible terrorism charges.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the pro-Thaksin protest group used news outlets as “command centers” to organize their protests. After a series of mysterious, early-year bombings, Abhisit’s government imposed emergency rule in nearly half of the country’s provinces to contain the UDD protests. Those broad powers, which remained in place for much of the year, were used censor partisan and independent media on national security grounds. Although it refused to provide a specific number, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology acknowledged closing many thousands of websites that carried political content, including the prominent independent news website, Prachatai. About 25 community radio stations, four print publications, and one television station were also shut down. (Thailand’s traditional print media–including the English-language Bangkok Post and The Nation–were largely unaffected by the government’s censorship although they reported critically on the government, opposition, and military.)
Despite the clampdown, the political battle is still smoldering, forming a background for political anxiety and instability. “One good thing is that partisan media have made Thai people more politically motivated,” said Supinya Klangnarong, coordinator of the Thai Netizen Network, an Internet freedom advocacy group. “But some feel there has been too much freedom and that some media have incited violence. That’s made it very difficult for media freedom defenders in this situation.”
There are highly politicized roots to the debate. Thaksin’s tight control of state-dominated TV and his government’s financial squeezing and legal harassment of print media gave rise to Asia Satellite TV’s (ASTV) anti-Thaksin news channel. The partisan station used new satellite technology to get past the state regulatory wall.
ASTV was launched by media tycoon and former Thaksin ally Sondhi Limthongkul, who went on to spearhead the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest movement. In 2005, ASTV pioneered the use of the made-for-television political rally, which relied on the unfiltered speeches of PAD protest group leaders who often resorted to ad hominem attacks against their political opponents. ASTV’s reality-style programming includ-ed 24-hour live coverage of the PAD’s three-month siege of Government House and week-long occupation of Bangkok’s two international airports in 2008.
UDD-aligned media copied ASTV’s partisan example, taking it to an extreme. Perhaps disingenuously, the UDD charged in its broadcasts that the state-controlled broadcast media (once manipulated by Thaksin) had, under Abhisit, consistently slanted its coverage in favor of the government.
In 2009, it was Thaksin himself who provided funding to establish Voice of Taksin, a glossy fortnightly that bore a variation of his name and indeed amplified his voice. Its editor was Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, who was also a core leader of the UDD and protest organizer. Somyot was detained for about three weeks before being released and launching yet another pro-Thaksin publication, Red Power. Although Somyot has not yet been charged with a crime, there is a possibility he could be named in an alleged plot to topple the monarchy or on the terrorism charges that other UDD leaders faced.
Voice of Taksin and Red Power were not only aligned with Thaksin’s political cause, they went after the UDD’s enemies in a vitriolic way. Voice of Taksin, for example, ran a February 15 article on the history of global political assassinations that was juxtaposed with a list of Supreme Court judges, including their home addresses and telephone numbers. The court at the time was due to decide whether the state should seize US$2.3 billion worth of Thaksin’s assets on charges of corruption. A bomb was found and defused in front of the Supreme Court the day before the magazine went on newsstands. Other editions of the publication urged the use of Molotov cocktails against security forces.
The government played up these extreme examples of partisan media to shutter all sorts of critical outlets. “They’re not professional journalists, but they are actually pretty much propaganda arms of a political grouping,” Abhisit said in a September 24 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “I’m not sure any democracy allows broadcasts of people actually offering rewards if you go and kill the prime minister or if you go and kill other people.” Media monitors confirmed that such threats were broadcast. They were a result of broadcasting live, 24 hours a day, from protest sites where organizers lacked control over what speakers might say.
But what Abhisit left unexplained when he spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations was that his government’s crackdown extended much further, to include media outlets that were independent or were simply sympathetic to the UDD or its offshoots. Many of the sites ran material perceived by authorities to be critical of the monarchy, a criminal offense punishable by 15 years’ imprisonment. Mainstream Thai publications, radio stations, and TV broadcasters have historically censored themselves on royal issues, but some partisan media have pushed the boundaries, including sharp criticism of royal advisers who are not covered by lese majeste laws.
The extent of the censorship was difficult to track because the emergency decree exempted the government from issuing written orders to Internet service providers. But in a December report, Thailand’s iLaw Project said the government ordered the blocking of 38,868 websites and Web pages for publishing content critical of the country’s royal family. In all, the group said, the government ordered roughly 44,000 web addresses blocked during 2010.
Thai journalists are concerned that the government may move to strengthen lese majeste laws, perhaps by requiring citizens to report online content seen as criticizing the monarchy. More institutionalized censorship could also arise through a licensing regime being managed by a new quasi-independent regulatory commission. The commission was initially envisioned as paving the way for media liberalization, but military officials have urged that the commission address national security issues as part of its mandate.
News outlets, even those with strong philosophical views, can combat this damaging cycle of repression by exerting greater individual independence and demonstrating more professional solidarity.
That has not always happened in Thailand, where some media blurred the line between journalism and political operations. “Both camps used media to mobilize people,” said Kan Yuenyong, director of the Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank that surveyed local media content during Thailand’s political crisis. “They used media not to check and balance, but instead as political fighting tools.” Kan expressed concern that the government’s crackdown on partisan media would stunt the development of new independent media, including emerging satellite-TV stations.
In Sri Lanka, Wickramatunga said, divisions in news media will ensure continued problems. “The only way out is if they collectively stand together irrespective of their positioning,” he said. “The real basis on which to pick sides depends on how the government of the day performs. Support should be based on its performance, and even that should not mean picking sides.”
Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, led a mission to Sri Lanka in 2010 and is the co-author of the special report, “In Sri Lanka, no peace dividend for press.” Shawn W. Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, is the author of the 2010 report, “In Thailand unrest, journalists under fire.”