If you read the newspapers in North Korea or Zimbabwe, everything is going fine, and everything pretty much stays the same. If you read the papers in America or Europe everything is falling apart, and things get better. Right information is the first step to right action, and that is why a free press is so important. Freedom of expression is not some vague academic concept, no Constitutional garnish. Free speech gives a nation the eyes and ears to see itself, see the world and see its enemies. Clearly. Sometimes you may not like what you see, but at least you can do something about it.
Right now the Sri Lankan war must not being going well, because the Secretary of Defense is desperately trying to poke out our nation’s eyes. The MinDef issued a statement saying that any ‘baseless criticism’ of the military leadership is treason, any discussion of arms procurement or promotion of said leaders is treason, and talking to the troops… also treason. This is by no means a unique definition of treason, but it is a bit antiquated. The Rajapakse’s seem to want a royal crier to read proclamations and they don’t appreciate what a great tool we already have. Sri Lanka has diverse press that enables us to perceive our environment better and make better national decisions. It even, God forbid, shows us when things go wrong.
However, a free press certainly can make you look and feel bad, especially if you’re the one in the news. It all depends on whether your goal is improving the nation or covering your ass. Right now the statements from the Ministry of Defense point to the latter. They are outraged (outraged!) at coverage of opposition to the war, procurement, promotions and any opinions at all from the troops. This seems to serve the interest of those few public servants more than the nation. The rationale is that the military needs space outside of the Constitution because the war is so important and besides, they can certainly be trusted.
Except, of course, they can’t. The Ministry of Defense has been releasing body counts all year. In May 2007, Sarath Fonseka said the LTTE had less than 4,000 cadres (Hindustan Times). However, by their tally, about 5,000 LTTE cadres have been killed between now and January 1st. That is, we’ve killed every LTTE cadre, and a small zombie contingent as well. So something is obviously wrong. We are not perceiving the war clearly, and that is hurting the nation.
In order to improve the nation and win the war we need to see clearly what’s going on, even if that hurts the Secretary of Defense’s feelings. Client servicing is hard in any industry, but every professional swallows their pride and does it. The Ministry of Defense serves us, and we have a right to know what’s going on. Not because of any abstract principle, but simply because it makes our nation safer and stronger. And that is a case for a free media. This is a war for our nation and our security, and it requires the effort and support of every Sri Lankan. A free press gives us information, free expression gives us input, and free elections give us power. Called democracy. It’s great. And it helps us win.