17 December 2013

The vilification of Karu Jayasuriya



No politician can escape the watchful eyes of the media.  Media is a blessing as it is a curse as far as politicians are concerned.  It helps and it detracts.  This is a reality that all politicians have to learn to live with.  Media can make and they can break. 

In a country where the media industry is heavily politicized with prominent media outfits openly backing either politicians or parties scathing attacks are not uncommon.  There are of course times when political preference notwithstanding the recipient deserves the criticism, just as others deserve praise.  For the most part, however, politics colors reportage and comment, stories are tweaked to varnish blemish or obtain scar; media and ethics don’t always go together. 

There’s fair and unfair in all this, but in recent times no politician has been as unfairly attacked by the media as has been Karu Jayasuriya.  We are not talking about the occasional cartoon and caustic satirical piece; we are talking about a full scale mud-slinging campaign carried out by well-known media houses.  Perhaps this is why when Parliament debated the budgetary allocations for the Media Ministry, Karu Jayasuriya opted to speak on media ethics. 

Now in politics there are no permanent friends.  Even media institutions that wade into the political fray are known to shift loyalty, backing now one and now another.  Saints become devils, darlings turn into horrors.  Through it all, few would disagree, Karu has shown a kind of equanimity that is very rare in his tribe.  This is why Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, one of the more gentlemanly of the MPs in the Government ranks, did himself no favors when he read Karu’s observations on media ethics as an attack on media freedom.  Yapa is intelligent enough to know the difference and is no Mervin Silva; he need not have done himself the disservice of warranting comparison.

The truth is that Karu Jayasuriya has always defended media freedom.  He has stood up for the rights of journalists.  He has objected to intimidation. Indeed he has defended the very institutions and media personalities who for parochial political reasons spare no pains to sling mud at him.  When one considers that these very same institutions and journalists not too long ago were virtually falling over themselves to portray Karu as the country’s savior, one can obtain a sense of the politics of loyalty in both country and the media. 

Interestingly there is very little substance in these attacks.  Creative use of headline, turn of phrase and even downright falsehoods have been used to ridicule (‘criticize’ is a word that would amount to unwarranted glorification) Karu Jayasuriya.  The entire campaign has given new meaning to the term ‘below the belt’. 

Karu clearly stated, ‘I am open to criticism and I welcome it!’  At no point in his political life has Karu shown any fear of criticism.  He has on the rare occasion taken issue with something that was written about him but has always focused on the relevant facts and has always assured that he has no issue with comment.  Indeed ‘Facts are sacred, comment free’ is something Karu seems to respect far more than those who swear by that line do.  The attacks on Karu, on the other hand, have nothing to do with facts, sacred or otherwise, and certainly do not add up to ‘commentary’.  Malice, invective, irresponsibility, despicable are some of the words that come to mind if one were to describe what’s being hurled at Karu. 

What is more disturbing about all this is the fact that Karu’s detractors paint themselves as championing the cause of the Opposition.  Forget Karu. He’s just one individual.  Let’s talk about the Government and the Opposition.  There are many reasons to criticize the Government.  One could focus on specific individuals, specific incidents, specific policies or even overall ideological thrust.  A good case can be made for ‘change’.  Let’s go with that.  Let’s add that if politics is a reality then media houses will not be impervious to the political.  Let’s assume that they have a role in criticizing and a role in building opposition.

The problem with these opposition-builders is that those who they attempt to resurrect or beatify are inevitably scarred by the processes of resurrection and beatification, including the ‘necessary’ element to vilifying potential challengers.  What does all the invective and vilification say about the named and unnamed ‘saints’ in this matter, those individuals and cabals that are being directly or indirectly promoted? What does it say about Sajith Premadasa? 

On the flip side, what does Sajith have to say about all this?  Is he thinking, ‘Karu is a threat and if he’s getting a bit of stick it’s good for me and therefore I shall be silent’?  It is perfectly legitimate for anyone to object to anyone else. Sajith does not have to hold a brief for Karu.  On the other hand, if it’s about ethics, a different culture of engagement, a better political practice, then can Sajith breathe silent hurrahs for the media outfits and journalists who seem to have abandoned all else in the rush to evict Karu Jayasuriya from the political equation?

Can Sajith Premadasa remain silent and expect not to be judged on his ideas of media ethics? Can the Government remain silent?  Can anyone, really? 
  
msenevira@gmail.com
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