27 February 2012

Ravaya: a critical ‘mark’ in the political firmament

The twenty fifth anniversary of the launching of a newspaper is cause for celebration.  It is also a moment for a slow, long gaze at the journey.  ‘Ravaya’ is not the most popular newspaper in Sri Lanka.  It doesn’t have the circulation and the readership of other weekly Sinhala newspapers.  And yet, it has something that few newspapers in this country have: widespread respect. 
The bottom line is that Ravaya does not cater to the bottom line, it does not write to the gallery and is not interested in catering to the lowest common denominator.  The content is serious, sober, deliberately political and shows an aversion to sensationalizing.  It doesn’t concern itself with the trivial and ‘surface’ is clearly not its favourite grazing ground.  The Ravaya likes to delve, likes to dig deep, likes to engage with the complex, likes to analyze from angles that are not common in other weekly Sinhala papers. 
This does not mean of course that other newspapers are fluffy or fascinated with the trivial.  All newspapers have description and analysis, after all.  What is distinctive about the Ravaya is the deliberate privileging of things ideological.  It is principally for those who are interested in issues of power and consequently the structures of power, the structuring of power and the spaces for and examples of processes that engage with these things. 

Whereas the content in almost all weekly papers is organized around roughly the same structure, i.e. with features, business pages, sports, sections of kids and youth, Ravaya’s thrust is the political commentary.  As the paper evolved, other elements common to the newspaper industry, made their way into the Ravaya, but even then a preference for sobriety over the frivolous was maintained.  ‘What happened’ was and is invariable accompanied by ‘why it happened’ and typically by ‘why it should not happen’, ‘what the corrective should be’ etc. 
Now not all people are interested in power games.  Not all are interested in the deeper cultural and political economical articulations and implications of things and processes.  The target audience is therefore miniscule and this is why doing it for 25 years  is a remarkable accomplishment in longevity. 

Victor Ivan, the founding and continuing editor, some would say is the Ravaya, that the two are indistinguishable.  This is not true, though.  He is enough of a liberal to solicit and accommodate views contrary to those he holds close to his heart.  What he does is give direction.  He frames the parameters of writing, not in terms of ideological cans and cannots but argumentative quality and decency.  For all that liberality, however, like-feathered birds naturally flocked together.  Thus, even though the occasional ‘dissenting’ piece was accommodated, the regulars were mostly from one thin sliver of the ideological spectrum. 
For those who didn’t identify with the ‘Ravaya Position’ on issues, especially those pertaining to the conflict, this was a convenience. All one had to do was to read the Ravaya to find out what the other side was thinking, fearing, strategizing etc.  The arguments were coherent no doubt, but they were based on flawed premises.  The conclusions, recommendation and rhetoric were therefore flawed.  At the end of the day, some might say, the Ravaya got some egg on its editorial face, but one-upmanship aside neither Victor nor the Ravaya need feel any shame.  They had a position, they had preferred outcomes and they stuck to their guns.  They still do.

No, neither Ravaya nor Ivan have unblemished records when it comes to ethical journalistic practice, but those hiccups were rare and eminently forgivable when one considered the abysmal levels to which the media culture has descended in the matter of ethical conduct.  More disturbing was a certain deliberate tweaking of the dictum ‘Facts are sacred, comment free’.  The facts were screened to make sure that what appears as ‘news’ supported strongly held beliefs about how things are and how things should be.  This is why the Ravaya (along with YaTV and yes, ‘The Nation’ at one time) was bracketed with eminently rubbishable outfits in the NGO sector.  The Ravaya, committed to the belief that the LTTE cannot be militarily vanquished and therefore must be engaged in processes of give and give (‘take’ was tokenism, for the most part), downplayed LTTE atrocities, vilified those who thought otherwise and by and large ended up painting itself as a needlessly overzealous anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist rag. 
Despite all this, Ravaya remains the forum where a particular political position (pro-devolution, anti-history, more or less Marxian and fundamentalist-secularist) is articulated, coherently and consistently.  At one time this ‘Ravayan’ (shall we say?) position had sway, especially between 1994 and 2005, not any more though. And yet, in good times and bad, the Ravaya batted on bravely.  More importantly even as it erred in political analysis of the conflict, it was consistent and spot on in the larger issues of democracy, i.e. representation, transparency, accountability and the rule of law.  That, in fact, is what gave respectability to the jaundiced ideologies that came thick, fast and consistent in its pages. 

Today, even though there is very little evidence of humility regarding the errors of the past, Ravaya continues to be in the forefront of the battle to win back meaning, dignity and power for the ordinary citizen as per the promise of democracy. 
You won’t get it all in the Ravaya, but what you do get is something you will not find in other newspaper or, if you do, only in bits and pieces.  Salutations are called for.  This is mine:  remain!  

[published in 'The Nation', February 26, 2012]


Walter Rajaratne said...

Dear Malinda

You dont have to waste your precious time on this piece of rag just because Ivan used to bash Chandrika and Ranil off and on for reasons specific to him. This is yet another church man unpartiotic, anti Buddhist if you carefully analyse his past deeds.

Shaik Ahamath said...

Newspapers, irrespective of their alleged political or religious bias, have to be cherished. In the final analyses, we might have a weak opposition that wrecks good governance or even an incompetent government, but the only group that will compel our leaders to account are the journalists and the press. Dear Mr. Rajaratne, if the press that you approve are the ones that think exactly like you, it not only makes for a dull reading but you'd also learn nothing new and defeat the objectives of a newspaper.

Leela said...

Whether in his political or journalistic carrier, Victor Ivan has made more errors and wrongs than right and rational approaches. More often than not he has displayed his inherent prejudices against the majority. Perhaps his upbringing may well have something to do with such warped thinking that comes to light at times. That is my opinion.

Having said that I must say I admire the man for several factors. He is selfless, honest to himself and must be the least corrupt among all ex JVPers.