B. Muralidhar Reddy

COLOMBO: Amid growing concern in the media over what is perceived as high-handedness of the Defence Ministry towards journalists critical of the current war in the nation, the Sri Lanka Defence Ministry has formulated new guidelines for the media.

The guidelines, in the form a lengthy advisory posted on the ministry’s website, come amid heated exchanges between the media and the Defence Ministry over the recent move by the Defence Secretary to summon representatives of the government-controlled media house to discuss matters related to coverage of defence matters.

In response to charges that the Defence Secretary’s move amounted to intimidation of the media, the ministry asserted the government has the right to summon journalists to discuss defence-related issues.

Rising tensions

For several weeks now, relations between sections of the media and the government have been strained on issues related to the war’s coverage. The recent abduction and subsequent release of a defence editor of an English weekly after severe beating further aggravated the situation.

The government denied any role in the abduction. However, the police’s failure to apprehend the culprits strengthened suspicions that the government was hiding something. Against this backdrop, the latest guidelines to the media have triggered a controversy. It has been issued under the heading, “Deriding the war heroes for a living — the ugly face of ‘defence analysts’ in Sri Lanka.” It reiterated what was termed as “its stance over the irresponsible defence reportage,” and said the ministry would take necessary measures to stop “this journalistic treachery.” The advisory said: “Thus, whoever attempts to reduce the public support to the military by making false allegations and directing baseless criticism at armed forces is supporting the terrorists who continuously murder citizens of Sri Lanka.”

The guidelines list criticism of military operations, promotion schemes, procurement and unethical methods to obtain sensitive information as issues of concern. Anybody breaching the norms would be considered as “traitors,” it said.

“Military operations are planned and conducted by the officers with 30-40 years of service… The ministry is of the view that it is no one other than the officers who are qualified to plan, conduct, and analyse military operations. Also, the Ministry does not consider those who call themselves ‘defence analysts’ in the media possess any military education or experience to make any serious defence analysis,” it said.

Further, the guidelines said: “Any journalist that lures a soldier to give away information he is not authorised to give is instigating him or her to breach the military discipline. Likewise, if such journalists lure the soldier by exploiting his/her personal grievances, weaknesses, ego, and personal disputes or even by bribery; the journalist is inflicting an irreparable damage to one of the most valuable national asset.”