Attack on Sirasa TV: Who wants to create a headless Sri Lankan nation?

Sri Lanka's most popular channel and ratings-leader

Sirasa TV: Sri Lanka's most popular channel and ratings-leader

‘Sirasa’ literally means ‘head’ in Sinhala. In the past 15 years, ‘Sirasa’ has also emerged as one of the most popular brands in Sri Lanka. It is the flagship name of Sri Lanka’s leading private TV broadcaster, MTV Channel (Private) Limited.

Sri Lankans woke up last morning to the disturbing news that their Sirasa was on fire. In the early hours of 6 January 2009, Sirasa group’s main studio and transmission complex was attacked, ransacked and bombed. A heavily armed and masked gang of around 20 persons had stormed the premises, located in Pannipitiya just outside Colombo, held the night staff at gunpoint and destroyed the main control room.

According to news reports, the attackers fled after inflicting targeted damage to the station’s nerve centre. They were not detected or apprehended in spite of Colombo being under heavy police protection to guard against terrorist attacks.

Within hours, the attack was widely condemned by local and international groups. It also sparked intense discussion and debate online as to who did it, and why. One blogger, who was particularly active on the topic, noted: “The culprits were not identified. The motives were apparent. Somebody badly wants to silence Sirasa TV.”

too little, too late? Image courtesy Daily Mirror

Crime investigation: too little, too late? Image courtesy Daily Mirror

That much is clear: here was yet another case of shooting the messenger, a worrying trend that has become almost entrenched in parts of South Asia. Never mind the information content and its analysis; just attack – and hopefully silence – the messenger bearing bad news.

In other words, if you don’t like what you see in the mirror – which is what media is to society – just kick it, shatter it and hammer it into dust so that it won’t reflect anymore. Destroy all the mirrors of the land, and we’ll finally be the fairest and prettiest in the whole world. That seems to be the perverse logic that fuels attacks of this nature.

Reporters Without Borders strongly condemned the attack. “Violence and threats against such privately-owned media outlets and journalists trying to impartially report on the conflict must stop,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said. “The government must quickly find and punish those responsible for this latest attack and see the network is compensated.

It added: “The attack seems to be because its coverage was not ‘patriotic’ enough. The network is one of the country’s few, and very popular, independent news sources. The incident recalls the November 2007 attack on the Leader Publication printing works, for which nobody has been punished.”

RSF also noted that the MTV/Sirasa network has been criticised “for not giving enough air-time to recent government victories over the rebels, with state-run media outlets accusing it of reporting a suicide attack in Colombo on 2 January, the day the army captured the rebel capital of Kilinochchi, in northern Sri Lanka. A bomb was thrown at the network’s offices just after news of the government victory was broadcast.”

In late 2008, RSF had ranked Sri Lanka among the bottom 10 countries for its media freedom. At No 165 among 173 countries assessed, Sri Lanka is in the company of Cuba, Burma, North Korea, China and Iran. (Interestingly, the latter two are among Sri Lanka’s key donors of bilateral aid or credit.)

Attacking the untamed and pluralistic media is characteristic of these bottom-ranked countries and their intolerant regimes. That is what happened to Geo TV network in Pakistan in 2007-2008, when it bore news that the military dictator General Musharraf and his cronies didn’t like. In March 2007, the station was broadcasting live images of anti-Musharraf street protests when the riot police stormed the Islamabad offices of Geo, the country’s most popular TV network and caused damage. (In 2008, RSF ranked Pakistan at No 152 among 173 countries for its media freedom.)

Within hours, Musharraf had “apologized for the raid…and indicated that the action had been executed without his approval”. But Hamid Mir, the station’s bureau chief, said that was insufficient. “They (police) wanted to destroy this newsroom…They were trying to send a message to the whole media by attacking Geo TV.”

In some respects, Sirasa TV is Sri Lanka’s own version of Geo TV. The latter’s resolve amidst much adversity from the Pakistan’s military rulers earned it worldwide praise, even if it had to pay a heavy price for such defiance. The station was driven off the air for some time in late 2007, and later its offshore transmissions from Dubai were also suspended under pressure from Pakistani government. But Geo had the last laugh…

Sirasa's branding of 24/7 news

News 1st: Sirasa's branding of 24/7 news

We can only hope that the Sirasa TV situation will not evolve to such drastic levels. Surprising its viewers (and perhaps also its attackers?), the Sirasa group’s television channels managed to get back on their feet within a few hours of the attack – for much of January 6, they ran a combined transmission that showed the extent of damage and aired many and varied comments of politicians, artists, intellectuals and ordinary viewers shocked by this turn of events.

MTV channel head Chevaan Daniel was quoted as saying that “it would be a while before normal programming can be resumed”. He says the current broadcasting set-up was due to the ingenuity of the engineering staff of MTV.

This isn’t the first time Sirasa group has literally risen from the ashes. A fire broke out at the same studio complex on on 6 January 2001, which was not linked to arson, but nevertheless caused massive damage. On that occasion, state-owned TV channel Rupavahini – which lags behind Sirasa TV in Sri Lankan TV ratings by independent market research firms – came to its gutted rival’s help. The one-time monopoly broadcaster loaned some of its transmission facilities to Sirasa to get back on the air, but it took the latter station weeks to resume its regular schedule.

Just a few years later, such inter-station solidarity seems unthinkable. The Sri Lankan broadcast media landscape is now so polarised between those who uncritically support the government, and those who choose to practise the time-honoured principles of journalism, such as consulting multiple sources and accommodating a multitude of opinions. Sirasa group, and its news operation branded as News 1st, operate on this basis: their slogan is ‘we report, you decide’.

Journalists in Colombo protest the attack on Sirasa, 6 January 2009 - photo courtesy Daily Mirror

Journalists in Colombo protest the attack on Sirasa, 6 January 2009 - photo courtesy Daily Mirror

It’s precisely that kind of rational and independent thinking that the attackers on Sirasa would rather not allow. Media and human rights activists have already said that the attack on Sirasa is far more than an act of violence against an individual media organisation. Indeed, it goes far deeper: it’s an attempt to zombify a society, to turn 20 million Sri Lankans into a headless nation that can then be herded, remote-controlled and led in any direction to the beat of war drums…with no one asking irritating questions.

Tragically, sections of the private media have already fallen in line to such an extent that they behave so much like docile school boys and girls. The country has 3 state-owned TV channels and a dozen privately owned channels, all broadcasting signals free to air, and some more cable or DTH channels available to paying subscribers. But this proliferation of channels – the product of (imperfect yet useful) media liberalisation since the early 1990s – has not been matched by a corresponding plurality of views.

If their station logos were suddenly removed, I would find it hard to discern between state TV and some private – and supposedly independent – TV channels!

To be fair, all private channels – both radio and TV – have reasons to mind their step. They operate on broadcast licenses granted on governmental discretion. What I wrote in a commentary in November 2006 still holds: “When it comes to radio and TV broadcasting, private operators are completely at the government’s mercy. The highly discretionary broadcast licensing system has always lacked transparency, accountability and consistency from the time private broadcasting was first permitted in 1992. Since then, several governments have been in office, and while election manifestos regularly promised the creation of a broadcasting authority, such a body has not yet materialised.”

A further attempt to regulate private TV broadcasters in October 2008 was delayed only because media activists petitioned Supreme Court which ordered further study and hearings.

In this turbulent, unfair and unjust media scenario, Sirasa group’s channels have tried hard to uphold the people’s right to information, offering a platform for a diversity of views, and opportunity for public discussion and debate. The station telecasts in three main languages on separate channels: MTV Channel One in English, Sirasa TV in Sinhala and Shakthi TV in Tamil. No other station has such dedicated channels for each of the country’s three official languages. Programme content of the channels includes news, educational programmes, family entertainment, music, sports, teledramas and game shows.

Sirasa group has been an innovator and pathfinder pushing the limits of Sri Lankan broadcasting. For the past decade, it has been a case of the group’s bouquet of radio and TV channels leading and all others struggling to follow. Sirasa innovates; all others emulate or shamelessly copy!

When innovation led to popularity and market domination, that inevitably inspired much jealousy among its less successful rivals. Especially the former monopolists of state radio and state TV have been very bitter about being beaten in their own game by this relatively young, dynamic and innovative channel. I call them tired old aunties without eyeballs. At their age, they need to watch out: too much of sour grapes can cause serious indigestion.

It’s not surprising that, unable to compete in the marketplace of ideas, they should resort to patriotism, the usual last resort of the scoundrel. As RSF noted in its statement: “The state-owned media has recently attacked MTV/MBC for supposedly being “unpatriotic,” which has forced some of its journalists to censor themselves or flee the country.”

Yet amidst all the frustration, envy, finger-pointing and fist-waving, how many of Sirasa’s detractors and competitors have paused to think why Sirasa remains the ratings leader in radio and television broadcasting in Sri Lanka? Why does this channel have such wide appeal among the various ethnic and religious groups who call Sri Lanka home, and from across the social and education spectrum? To begin their search, they might start looking in the mirror.

Meanwhile, the vocal minority of Sirasa’s critics – some of who have already tried to justify the latest attack – would do well to remember that there’s a cheaper, entirely legal and far more civilised way to silence a TV channel they find objectionable or even offensive for one reason or another.

It’s a little gadget called the remote control. Try it once in a while.

Declaration of interest: I consider myself part of Sirasa’s extended family. I have been a regular ‘TV pundit’ on Sirasa airwaves for at least a decade, and in 2008 co-produced a TV debate series called Sri Lanka 2048 which explored choices for creating a more sustainable Sri Lanka over the next 40 years. This doesn’t mean that I uncritically cheer everything they do. As my friends at Sirasa know very well, I don’t always agree with them, but we respect each other’s right to hold differing opinions.

3 Responses to “Attack on Sirasa TV: Who wants to create a headless Sri Lankan nation?”

  1. Sandra Says:

    There you go again. It’s only a matter of time now before remote controllers are outlawed in Sri lanka for being a threat to national security!

  2. vindana Says:

    “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it” George Bernard Shaw once said. And that same concept has become the most marketable asset in present Sri Lanka, a nation whose administration veils its inadequacies behind the war against terrorism. The mass media cartel with the exception of one independent network with a head follow the government led in marketing combat warfare as the only form of recreation for the toiling public. Yet the majority of the audience continues to grow and embrace MTV network for its distinction. A certain group dreaded the network conflicting with their interests. They failed to draw the viewer’s eyes away from MTV channels and grew tired of constant but unsuccessful attempts to emulate them. The final resolution for them became obvious. When you can’t control press, always take down the source. They just did that, and even that to perfection in delivering a mortal blow to MTV network, ceasing the transmission even for brief period of time. Not to be cynical, the only commendable thing of the group that orchestrated the attack was leaving the staff on premise unharmed, the only action which gave any sign the perpetrators were linked to some form(poorest) of civilization.
    The blogger expresses grievance over the unfortunate situation and I concur with him. This attack has brought the country’s press freedom to its lowest point since the independence.
    Hopefully MTV will follow the way of the phoenix and deliver an ultimatum to its adversaries. They will continue to exist in their gallant form. The foes can revoke their broadcast license, obstruct their reporting. But what they can’t control is its spirit. They can’t stop them from investigating, exploring or from being innovative.
    The suppressors will have a choice. If they prefer to prolong to the civilized world, they could have MTV as a professional colleague, passionate and vigorous or they can have them as an outspoken outsider, still more than adamant. Either way in their thoughts Sirasa will still be viewed as a thorn.

  3. Ayesha Says:

    According to this news item, which appeared a few weeks after your blog, remote controllers are to be strictly regulated in sri lanka!

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