Sri Lanka’s Embattled Media

by William Crawley and David Page, ICWS Senior Research Fellows

The articles in our edited volume Embattled Media were written before the Presidential election in Sri Lanka in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated and removed from office. For some of our authors and readers, instead dating the book, this has transformed its interest and potential influence. Our contributors write about aspects of the Sri Lankan media environment which have caused major difficulties in the past but now – in today’s changed political circumstances – are prompting creative and constructive thinking. The reality with Sri Lanka is that more than forty years of conflict and insurgency and civil war have given rise to a generation which has lost any experience of normality in the legal system, and the environment in which Sri Lanka’s long established and sophisticated media operate. The challenge today is to restore that normality.

One of the first issues to be tackled by the new government is discussed by several of the authors in Embattled Media – a Bill to ensure a Right to Information. The legal limitations of Sri Lanka’s constitutional protection of a freedom of speech are analysed in in some detail by Jayantha de Almeida Guneratne. The Supreme Court had ruled that media freedoms could be superseded by Emergency regulations which had been in force for much of the past forty years. He argues that a Right to Information Act is therefore an urgent necessity. But it has not been easy to press forward. A draft Right to information Act was presented by the government to parliament but stalled under parliamentary pressure. The new parliament elected in August has another opportunity to address the issue. The external factor of the presentation last month to the UN Human Rights Council of the report on wartime excesses has added to internal pressures at home for new initiatives.

At the seminar on 20 October Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, co-editor of Embattled Media, was in a position to analyse how attitudes and possibilities for Media Reform have changed in the 10 months since the Rajapaksa government was ousted. But Sri Lanka’s long tradition of judicial and constitutional independence, shorn of its Emergency accretions, is very much part of an inheritance shared by India and other countries of south Asia. For the Commonwealth and the wider international community, media freedoms have come to be seen as an important part of the human rights agenda. Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbour India has been treated with wariness as a ‘big brother’ whose past intervention in the Sri Lankan conflict ended disastrously for its own long term influence. Yet Indian legal practice and judicial decisions have provided some welcome examples and support for a Sri Lankan civil society seeking to conserve and rebuild its democratic foundations. Lawrence Liang of the Alternative Law Forum based in Bangalore, another speaker at the seminar on 20 October, is a critic of many aspects of the Indian judiciary. He will surely give an interesting view of some of the parallel dilemmas that both India and Sri Lanka have faced in the regulation of the media. The focus on Sri Lanka and south Asia, with which Embattled Media is mainly concerned, is the starting point for the seminar and will form the topic of the first session.

But it is the wider global relevance of issues of media regulation, freedom and reform that other speakers will focus on. The Commonwealth as an international institution drew up the Latimer House Principles in 1998 as guidelines for the relations between parliament, the executive and the judiciary in Commonwealth countries, and the three distinguished speakers in the seminar’s second session will reflect on Media Policy and Governance in these countries. Victoria Holdsworth, Head of Media at the Commonwealth Secretariat will speak on the need for an integrated approach to media development. Lawrence McNamara of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, based in London University, will speak on the relevance of the Latimer House principles to media freedom and the accountability of the Executive in Commonwealth countries. Mark Stephens, past present of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association – the body which played a key role in drawing up the Latimer House principles 27 years ago – will also speak.

The protection of journalists has become an increasingly urgent issue as the number of journalists killed and injured in the exercise of their profession has steadily increased, especially in areas of conflict. Sri Lanka became a prime example of this as journalists of all ethnic groups were exposed to violence and targeted assassinations from both state and non-state actors in the prolonged civil war. As Amal Jayasinghe writes in his contribution to Embattled Media, his employers Agence France Presse at a critical stage in the Sri Lanka conflict sent him – for his own safety – to Afghanistan! The third session will focus on the urgent and vital question of how to make safeguards for journalists more effective, with contributions from Oliver Spencer of Article19, the Indian journalist and documentary film maker Nupur Basu, Judith Townend of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and William Horsley, Director of the Centre for the Freedom of the Media in Sheffield University.

We asked contributors to Embattled Media to look at the state of media education in Sri Lanka. One of the purposes of the book has been to provide documentation and study material for a more informed academic study of the media in Sri Lankan universities. For the seminar’s final session our speakers include Daya Thussu, Professor of Communications and Director of the Indian Media Centre at Westminster University, Nicole Stremlau of the Oxford Programme on Comparative Media Law and Policy, Tessa MacArthur of the Department of International Development – speaking on DFID policy on governance and the media – and James Deane, Director of Policy and Research at BBC Media Action. This discussion to be chaired by Professor James Manor promises to be lively and illuminating not only for students of south Asia but for those involved with assessing the impact of rapidly changing media technologies. It will also look at priorities for those engaged in supporting and delivering programmes to strengthen the role of the media as a key element of the governance process in democratic countries.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Caribbean rescue in the Commonwealth

by Sir Ronald Sanders, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore for three decades, died on March 23rd. He was a remarkable man who is best remembered for courageous leadership that converted a tiny island with virtually no natural resources into one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

This commentary recalls a particular role that he played on the Caribbean’s behalf in the Commonwealth, saving the leaders of the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados and Jamaica from disdain over their invitation to the United States of America to intervene in Grenada in 1983.

Singapore From Ramir Borja via Wikimedia Commons

Singapore became an economic powerhouse under Lee Kuan Yew. From Ramir Borja via Wikimedia Commons

But, first it has to be recalled that Lee Kuan Yew commanded international respect, even envy for making tiny Singapore an economic powerhouse in global terms. He tended to tolerate nothing that would likely disrupt the march toward progress of his tiny country. Small states in the Caribbean and elsewhere are often directed to the “Singapore Model” as a design they should seek to emulate. That, however, is easier said than done.

Nonetheless, it is worth recalling the ingredients Lee utilized to develop his country. A principal and overriding factor was a dominant role for the state – something which international financial institutors and Western developed nations discourage in Caribbean countries – indeed, across the Third World.

Even while maintaining a dominant role for the state, Lee actively encouraged foreign investment, recognising, in the beginning, that Singapore lacked the capital and knowhow to create industries. That is not the situation today, but it was his attitude to social democracy that improved, health, public housing and, vitally, education.

The wages and salaries of public servants today match equally payments in the private sector, resulting in public servants whose capacity is every bit as good as the best in the private sector.

Having registered the accomplishments of Lee Kuan Yew in the development and prosperity of his own country and the respect it earned him in the global community, this commentary records a crucial role he played at the 1983 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting following the US-led intervention in Grenada.

I was privileged to be an Antigua and Barbuda delegate to that conference under the leadership of then Foreign Minister Lester Bird. The temper of the meeting, particularly from the leaders of African States, was annoyance with the countries of the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados and Jamaica that had participated with the US in intervening in Grenada after the military coup that had overthrown the government, murdering its prime minister, Maurice Bishop, and other leaders.

Condemnatory statements were made by Presidents Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyrere and Kenneth Kaunda of Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia respectively. Their governments – and the majority of governments of Commonwealth developing countries – had voted just weeks before at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn the US-led intervention. The Africans vented their distress at Caribbean participation with the US. Julius Nyrere called on the Commonwealth to express its anger. And so it might have done were it not for Lee Kuan Yew.

He explained that Singapore had voted at the UN against the US because its intervention in Grenada had broken a rule and breaking that rule could have “horrendous consequences”. But, he said he had listened to four Caribbean leaders who had spoken before him asking for understanding of their position. Those leaders were Lester Bird of Antigua and Barbuda, Kennedy Simmonds of St Kitts-Nevis, Eugenia Charles of Dominica and JMG ‘Tom’ Adams of Barbados.

Bird had said “when a regime murdered a prime minister and was terrorizing its own people, the governments of neighbouring countries with which there was an enduring relationship had a responsibility to act”.

Lee Kuan-Yew told the conference that despite his condemnation of the US at the UN, which he would do again, “Commonwealth leaders were presented with a paradox”. He described the paradox for his government in the following way: “Singapore voted against the American invasion because of the resulting dangers; it was nonetheless grateful that it took place because there were 110,000 happy Grenadians.” Each leader knew in his heart, he said, “that the Eastern Caribbean States’ response was right”.

He went on to observe that “it would have been much more convenient” if the Caribbean countries had the resources to intervene on their own. The matter, he said, would not have been raised at the Commonwealth Summit “nor would their action have caused great objections in the United Nations” which “would have seen it as an example of the Third World resolving its own problems”.

And he concluded that Commonwealth leaders had not gathered “to put their partners from the Eastern Caribbean in the dock”. “It was necessary to condemn the action in the United Nations because of the dangerous precedents it could create”, but he wanted the Meeting to turn away from recrimination and to come out positively with a proposal to achieve security for island states, and so make a contribution “to international stability and security”.

Not all of the heads of government at the Commonwealth summit would have welcomed Lee Kuan-Yew’s practical and pragmatic intervention, but they recognised the wisdom in it.

Lee Kuan-Yew received a respectful and careful hearing to what was a thoughtful and defining intervention – one which secretary-general, Shridath Ramphal, developed into a forward-looking statement from the summit that focussed “on the early return by Commonwealth Caribbean countries to the spirit of fraternity” and to the undertaking of “a study of the special needs of small states consonant with the right to sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Several positive consequences flowed from Lee Kuan Yew’s statement at the summit, first it helped to bridge the divide that had occurred between Commonwealth Caribbean countries that had participated with the US in the Grenada intervention and those who had opposed; it led to the first definitive study on the challenges confronting small states; and it confirmed the value of Commonwealth heads of government meetings attended by heads themselves.

Lee Kuan-Yew should be remembered in the Caribbean for the positive and constructive role he played at the 1983 Commonwealth Summit.

Exploring the ‘Hidden Histories’ of Decolonization at the ICWS

by Chris Moffat, ICWS Early Career Researcher in Commonwealth Studies

 The Hidden History of Decolonization: What do the ‘migrated archives’ reveal about British withdrawal from Empire?

Last Friday, 20 February 2015, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies convened an afternoon conference on the ‘Hidden Histories of Decolonization’, the latest in its Decolonization Workshop series. Organised in conjunction with King’s College London, the event focused on the question of ‘migrated archives’ (FCO 141) – the collection of British colonial administrative documents released in 2012-13 by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – and the implications these new sources might have for our understanding of the end of the British Empire.

A primary concern throughout the day was, concordantly, the nature and form of the archive itself. The opening session brought together ICWS Senior Research Fellow Dr Mandy Banton and VICE News journalist Katie Engelhart to discuss their shared interest in the various trails of misinformation and ‘sleights of hand’ that have kept this collection from the public eye for so many decades. Dr Banton traced the British government’s evolving policy toward migrated archives, noting the obstacles scholars face in establishing for certain the ‘complete’ contents of a collection – that is, the difficulty in ruling out the possibility that some files remain hidden, that some have been destroyed, or that the process of naming and archiving has functioned to obfuscate certain materials. Engelhart, meanwhile, suggested that the case of FCO 141 is provocative for the questions it raises about government transparency in the public record system. She also suggested that, in addition to possible historical value, the new documents have potential legal value – referring to the ongoing attempt by some 41,000 Kenyan claimants to sue the British government for mistreatment during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion.

A lively discussion as to whether the delayed release of colonial archives amounted to a ‘conspiracy’ or a ‘cock-up’ followed, moderated by session chair and ICWS Director Professor Philip Murphy. Professor Murphy raised the question of institutional memory in the Foreign Office, asking if it could possibly be so poor as to explain entire ‘lost’ collections. Contributions from the audience explored the long-term campaigns led by former colonial territories like Kenya to demand the return of documents concerning their national histories, based on both a political and economic prerogatives. Comparisons were also drawn with the example of French archives and the uncertain fate of colonial collections from West and coastal Africa.

The next two sessions interrogated the specific content of the migrated archives, asking whether or not these documents really provided the ‘revelations’ or ‘game-changing’ material suggested by sustained media interest in their release. The consensus was – overwhelmingly – that no, the release of FCO 141 has not provided the occasion to rewrite the narrative of Britain’s withdrawal from Empire; indeed, if anything, it has simply affirmed what historians already knew. Dr Karl Hack of the Open University went so far as to suggest, in the final session, that the spectacle of FCO 141’s release has threatened to steal momentum from the general move away from colonial archives in the historiography of former British territories, distracting from robust efforts to privilege foreign and vernacular archives alongside grounded oral histories collected in the field. This point contrasted with a more general optimism expressed by the remaining panellists regarding the potential of FCO 141 to provide enhanced contextual detail – if not historical ‘revelation’ – and also to prompt scholars to ask new questions about the decolonization process.

The second session brought together Professor Dan Branch (University of Warwick), Professor John Lonsdale (University of Cambridge) and Dr Emma Hunter (University of Edinburgh) to discuss the migrated archives in the context of East Africa. Professor Branch emphasised the value of FCO 141 in underlining the global processes of decolonization, especially as they relate to the Cold War. Documents in the migrated archives, he noted, trace with great detail the ‘political traffic’ of young Kenyan students to Eastern Europe during the late colonial period. They dwell particularly on the experience of racism in this context for its utility to British anti-Soviet propaganda, but also provide a valuable pre-history for Kenyan trade-unionism and opposition politics in the post-colonial state. Professor Lonsdale outlined the standard historical narrative around decolonization in Kenya before conceding that FCO 141 does not necessitate any revision to this well-established story. The potential of the migrated archives rests, he argued, in the insight it provides to high-level thinking around British counter-insurgency efforts and the influence of racism in managing imperial exit from East Africa. The release is provocative, moreover, for illuminating the difficulty the British public continues to have in coming to terms with this dark episode of its history and the manner in which events around the Mau Mau rebellion clash with the country’s post-imperial national image. Dr Hunter, in contrast, suggested that the worth of FCO 141 lies in the local or ground-level detail it provides the African historian willing to explore archival documents in idiosyncratic ways. Referring to her own work on decolonization in Tanganyika, now Tanzania, Dr Hunter demonstrated how vernacular newspapers and anti-colonial pamphlets – amassed by colonial intelligence due to concerns about their seditious nature – provide rare insight into the East African colony’s public sphere and efforts to shape political debate. During the Q&A period, Professor Branch agreed that the contents of FCO 141 may, perhaps, be more promising for the work of the Africanist in particular rather than historians of Empire more generally.

The third and final session included contributions from Professor David French (UCL), Professor Philip Murphy (ICWS) and Dr Karl Hack (Open University), and was concerned with the implications of FCO 141 for the histories of Cyprus, Singapore and Malaysia. Professor French affirmed that his forthcoming book on British counter-insurgency campaigns in Cyprus during the 1950s would have made the same argument with or without the migrated archives, but that it would have been less detailed – unable to outline in such depth, for instance, the brutality of British forces and the Greek Cypriot group EOKA, nor equipped to map the high-level thinking among British officials about the mistreatment of convicts or EOKA’s persecution of the civilian population. Professor Murphy’s presentation emphasised the potential for FCO 141 to ground new, connected histories of counter-insurgency in the British empire and beyond, focusing on the mention of the Cyprus ‘Special Investigation Group’ (SIG) in a 1959 Colonial Office document circulated to Kenya, Uganda, Northern Rhodesia and other African colonial territories. The SIG, which had been established in Cyprus less to enquire into allegations of abuse by British authorities than to ‘manage’ such allegations – working to provide the ‘first narrative’ around a violent or contentious event – was recommended as a useful precedent for ‘campaigns of representation’ in the African context, leading Professor Murphy to ask what implications initiatives like SIG may have had for the British security forces at large. Dr Hack concluded the session by discussing the ‘public life’ of newly-released documents in Malaysia and Singapore, noting that – while the documents have not provided anything new for historians of British Malaya – the release of personal files and Special Branch documents has sparked interest in revealing those Malays who collaborated with the British during the Second World War and also those Singapore residents who were falsely persecuted as ‘communists’ during the late colonial period.

The afternoon’s discussions concluded with the observation that the ‘smoking gun’ connecting violence and brutality to the history of British decolonization had already been located in documents available since the 1980s. If the migrated archives remain useful for historians, it is in the rich, contextual detail their contents provide, as well as the encouragement they may give to scholars asking new questions about – in Dr Hunter’s words – the ‘messy and entangled’ global history of decolonization, especially as it falls under the shadow of the Cold War. Beyond the academic discipline of history, the case of the migrated archives remains of general interest for the questions in raises about government transparency, the relationship of colonial archives to the politics of post-colonial states, and the still-unfolding legacies of relationships forged by Empire.

Modi-fying India? A presidential campaign and the challenge of parliamentary governance

By Dr James Chiriyankandath Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and Co-Editor of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics.

India - Elections

With the din of the Indian election campaign dying away and the refrain of the BJP – “Abki baar, Modi sarkar” (This time, Modi government) – about to be realised, the implications of this momentous result can be assessed. Continue reading

Sri Lanka – straining the Commonwealth

By Sir Ronald Sanders, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and a former Caribbean diplomat

The association of 53 nations of the Commonwealth is facing yet another ordeal due to the actions of the government of Sri Lanka that have haunted it in recent years.

On March 21 the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution requesting the UN Human Rights Commissioner to undertake “a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka”. Continue reading

Hidden archives of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO): conspiracy, incompetence or loss of institutional memory?

By Mandy Banton, Senior Research Fellow, ICWS; formerly of the UK National Archives


Despite rumours and half-truths long in existence, the official line that no locally created records of former colonial governments were transferred to London at independence was generally accepted, although few would have been so naïve as to believe another claim – that none had been destroyed.  Continue reading

India’s general election: The Modi factor

By James Chiriyankandath, Co-Editor, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics

In April and May, India, home to more than half the population of the Commonwealth and the world’s largest democracy, holds its 16th general election. We follow an election that could  prove to be one of the most significant in the country’s history with the Indian National Congress, the party that has headed India’s government for much of the 67 years since independence, facing defeat and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bidding to regain power after a decade. Continue reading

The Commonwealth in troubling times

by Sir Ronald Sanders KCMG AM

In this Inaugural Lecture marking the 100th Anniversary of the Charter of the Bristol  Commonwealth Society, Sir Ronald Sanders [1] argues that the inter-governmental Commonwealth is a diverse group that is now plagued by mistrust and loss of confidence.  If the Summit in Sri Lanka is to be meaningful, Heads of Government must set up machinery to address this issue urgently and credibly.   It will call for careful diplomatic stage-managing by the Secretary-General, and transparent and open chairmanship by the Sri Lankan President.  Whether this can be achieved is left to be seen.  But, if this matter is not tackled with urgency and credibility, the Commonwealth may well go over the cliff to disintegration on which it is now dangerously perched.  Continue reading

Sri Lanka CHOGM 2013: With Whom Does the Decision Lie?

By Professor Philip Murphy, Director, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Well in advance of today’s meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), the Commonwealth Secretariat was attempting to dampen expectations that the Group would act decisively in response to growing concerns about the internal situation in Sri Lanka, which is due to host the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). On 26 March, Richard Uku, a spokesman for the Commonwealth Secretary General, confirmed that the CHOGM would be held in Sri Lanka, and that the country would not be on the CMAG agenda. He claimed, ‘It was the Commonwealth Heads of Government that made the decision to hold the 2013 meetings in Sri Lanka. Such decisions are made at the Commonwealth Heads of Government level and not by CMAG’.[i] The clear implication of his remarks was that, having been made at heads of government level, the decision to hold the CHOGM in Colombo could only be revoked by heads of government. This line seems to have been accepted even by those critics of the Sri Lankan government who claim that its record on democracy and human rights makes it an unsuitable host for the next CHOGM. Speaking at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies on 18 April, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Sri Lanka-based Centre for Policy Alternatives argued powerfully that recent developments in the country should result in the 2013 CHOGM being moved to another location. Yet even he appeared to accept that this decision could only be made by heads of government.

What, however, is the basis for this doctrine?

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Forty-three years of Earth Day, and still no UN Ecocide Law

Indigenous Communities on the Banks of the Rio Negro, Amazon, Brazil

By the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study, University of London

Earth Day was established in 1970.  In the same year, the term ‘ecocide’ was first recorded at the Conference on War and National Responsibility in Washington.

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