Last Friday was an important day for the cause of Media Freedom. President Mahinda Rajapaksa defused a situation that was obviously leading to a major blow up involving the government and the media. He must have surprised the politicians and officials who were present at the meeting with editors of the print and electronic media, when he said the drawing up of a code of ethics for the media was a matter for journalists.
President Rajapaksa must have remembered the support he extended to those who campaigned hard for media freedom during the later years of the UNP administration from the late 1980s. He could not have forgotten his close association, playing a key role, in the Mothers’ Front led by Dr (Mrs.) Manorani Saravanamuttu, after the killing of Richard de Zoysa, and so many other journalists.
He must also have remembered the Code of Media Ethics prepared by the Ministry of Information a few years ago, which he did not think was suitably drawn to address the needs of the media and journalists, and has since been put aside never to be looked at again.
I must admit to being a reluctant member of the committee appointed to prepare that report, and disagreeing with most of its contents that did not address the real issues of the media and journalism. There is also the need to have fresh look at the report of the RKW Goonesekera on the Media that made some valuable recommendations on media in a democratic society.
The President’s move to give to the journalists the task of preparing a suitable code of ethics that will relate to the current and future needs of the media, which has undergone major changes since the days of the first Press Council, was certainly a good lesson to those in politics and officialdom who were waxing eloquent about the pressing need for ethics in the media, and were ready to set the guidelines on how the media should behave, with a multitude of vague statements and assertions that apart from showing the total lack of understanding of the functioning of the media in a democracy, was in fact very dangerous for the media that has an important role in a democracy.
One must hope that the politico-official link up that produced the draft code of media ethics that was circulated to political parties for comment and observation will not rise up again to bring any more guidelines for the media that displays the total ignorance of the role of media, and shows instead the pursuit of political advantage.
It is now up to journalists and media organizations to come up with what will best serve the requirements of the media in a democracy, which will include the safeguards for freedom of expression, publication and broadcasting, as well as the new role of the Internet and social media, without the interference of politico-official ineptitude and intrusion.
The trials of Obama
It is best to take up the task and challenge offered by the President in a situation before lesser beings in politics and their toadies in bureaucracy try to make an unethical come back on this issue. This was a really bad week for the United States and the Obama administration.
The whistleblower Edward Snowden who blew the lid off that massive snooping scandal involving of the private communications of US citizens, which came soon after the revelation of how the phone and communications of Associated Press were tapped, and followed by the damning report of how the UK and US shared in the secret scanning of the messages of the invitees to two G20 summits in the UK, has now placed the US in the midst of a diplomatic wrangle that is getting worse by the day.
Obama failed in the attempts to have Snowden extradited from Hong Kong. The situation was made worse by further revelations by Snowden that the US had snooped on phone and Internet communications in Hong Kong and China, opening up a much bigger can of worms, that involves diplomatic relations between the US and China.
The US anger at Hong Kong letting Snowden leave, with a terse statement that the request for his extradition was incomplete, and the US statements that the Hong Kong action was at the behest of Beijing, drew strong comments from China.
This seemed to put back what looked like the building friendly relations between the US and China following the recent meeting between Obama and President Xi Jinping of China.
China’s reaction has also to do with the many allegations that the US has been making of Chinese snooping and alleged hacking of the Internet, as well as the refusal to give important contracts in the US to Huwawei, among the leading Chinese companies in Information and Communications Technology, based on its alleged links with the Chinese Defence authorities.
All of this is now placing Washington in a most embarrassing situation, made worse by the failure to get Snowden back to the US to be tried for espionage and other charges that could even lead to the death penalty.
If Snowden caused a major problem in the US with China, he has also caused a similar situation with Russia, which too has clearly refused to hand him back to the US. Having flown from Hong Kong to Moscow on an Aeroflot plane, Snowden became a mystery man for nearly two days with Russia insisting that he was not in that country, while all expectations were that he would go from there to Cuba and then to Venezuela or Ecuador. Later, it was left for President Putin himself to reveal where Snowden was, technically not within the borders of Russia, because he was in the transit area of the airport, where travel documents are not required. This was another spoke in the wheel of the US and a further blow to Obama, whose efforts to have better relations with Moscow have hardly met with any success. President Putin was very clear that Snowden would not be sent to the US, because Russia has no extradition treaty with the US and because he had committed no crimes in Russia.
What is now even worse for the US is the fact that not only is Snowden out of its reach, this also shows how limited the reach of this super power is.
The US is now compelled to learn that its laws do not apply in all parts of the world, whatever John Kerry may say about bringing Snowden to justice, and the threats it makes of adverse consequences for those who shelter Snowden amounts to entry to a country without a warrant – in the form of a UN Security Council resolution.
It also has to face the ignominy of being lectured to on democracy and freedom of expression by a small country such as Ecuador, and has to face the reality that it will be unable to do anything if Snowden decides to spend a long time in transit in Cuba, too.
There is also the possibility of his passing through Venezuela, which will make those who make policy in Washington, and announcements to the word about defending democracy at any cost, look more than foolish. What is being challenged today is the pomp and power of the United States of America. It is a challenge the likes of which it has never seen before.
The lack of friends
The issue that has come to light with the Snowden saga is the fact that the US is fast running out of friends. Snowden by himself, whatever he exposed to the world, could not have caused all this worry to Washington. There are larger and wider issues that have contributed to this situation. There was a good effort to explain this by Simon Tisdall, assistant editor and foreign affairs columnist to the Guardian, in a piece to CNN on June 26. Here is the thinking that sees the pursuit for Snowden as an increasingly slapstick global steeplechase. His CNN piece titled “Why U.S. is being humiliated by the hunt for Snowden” states – “Every country has its own experience of U.S. bullying. In Britain, the case of Pentagon hacker Gary McKinnon, accused by the U.S. of the "biggest military computer hack of all time", became a cause celebre…In the end even Britain's sycophantic Cameron government was obliged, by force of public opinion, to throw out the U.S. extradition demand.
Perhaps it's the way the U.S. ignores its friends' environmental and resource concerns. Perhaps people in the global village are growing less tolerant of a domineering, one-size-fits-all philistine culture.
Iran has a pithy catchphrase for it. It calls America the "Global Arrogance."
Or perhaps it's a "white man's burden" thing. That's the phrase the British used to morally justify their empire-building. They were doing good, or so they told themselves, annexing all those countries and subjugating their peoples.
Geopolitically speaking, Washington took over where London left off, post 1945. Except the US equivalent phrase is "right man's burden". That is to say, we (that's the imperial Washington 'we') are (always) right, and you (lesser mortals, sadly benighted) are (always) wrong.
The world watched this attitude play out in Afghanistan and Iraq (intervention to make America's streets safe) and now in Syria (non-intervention to make America's streets safe). Pity all those displaced and terrorised Middle Easterners, but hey, we fixed Osama didn't we?
Strange that sense of triumph over the killing of the 9/11 mastermind was not universally shared.
Extra-judicial assassination, drones, killer robots, extraordinary rendition, black ops, wet ops, psy-ops, silly ops... The world is a bit tired of all this American posturing, grandstanding, and self-serving banditry.
So now it's cyber-ops, but wholly unofficial, courtesy Mr E. Snowden. It would be hard to accept it is real, if you didn't suspect it was virtual. Rather than decry it, many applaud it.
The White House is furious at the non-cooperation it has received. But has it occurred to them that maybe not just the Russians and the Chinese, but those soft, liberal Europeans and all the other neutrals also don't like the idea of being spied on by an out-of-control transnational agency beyond the reach of the law, any law, anywhere?
Obama and Kerry can talk about security until they lose signal. Right now, the rest of the world is talking sovereignty, privacy and individual rights. And enjoying the moment when the big guy takes a fall.”