15 April 2014

What next, a ban on laughter?

President Mahinda Rajapaksa knows how to smile.  Everyone knows this, even those who erroneously think that his biggest strength is his affable nature and the ease with which can interact with people from all walks of life. He can make a joke and he can take a joke. As is the case of all leaders he has had his share of lampooning. Indeed, in the age of the internet, he’s had it worse than his predecessors.  He has smiled through it all. 

It is certainly a person of character who can take a hit and still stand tall.  The stronger among us are endowed with both humility and a sense of humor.  Most importantly they can laugh at themselves and laugh with others even when the joke is less tasteful and perhaps unfair. They know that political satire is an inevitable in political life and are not fazed by it. 

Now it is true that not everyone is blessed with a sense of humor that helps overcome adversity and rise above poison pens and such.  Still, that’s hardly an argument for outlawing humor including political satire.  It is an inevitable and important part of a vibrant democracy. 

Take it out and it would be like Mahinda Rajapaksa without a smile.  It would not make a difference if he had never smiled, but a smile-less president would not only look different, it would be ‘news’ and indicative of many things political. 

We make these observations in light of something which is both laughable and also too serious to make jokes about.

On April 7 (Monday), the Lakbima newspaper published a photo caption on Page 8 of Ayoma Rajapaksa, the wife of the Secretary of the Defence Ministry at an event organized by the Seva Vanitha of the Civil Defence Force. She was there as the chief guest.  The photo shows her buying something from a stall and the caption read 'Hora Salli Nemeine...' (‘Not counterfeit notes, right?’ or ‘These are not counterfeit notes’).  The line makes sense only because of a recent discovery of a large cache of counterfeit currency indicating the existence of a sophisticated racket. 

It is clearly a witty line and would have elicited a laugh.  It alerted the public, thereby, to the issue.  All in all decent enough journalism, one would think. Few would conclude that it insinuated that either the lady or her husband was implicated in passing around counterfeit currency.  The simple truth is that the line would not work if it were, for example, a housewife offering a 100 rupee note to a mallun vendor at the pola. President Rajapaksa, one feels, would have laughed it off. 

Lakbima, for whatever reason, carried an apology on its front page the following day.  The sub editor who put the headline ‘irresponsibly’ was thereafter interdicted.  Now we can conclude that the line had escaped the editor’s eye.  If that’s the case and if the editor found it objectionable the apology can be called appropriate and the interdiction understandable. What happened thereafter, however, leads us to believe that someone outside that newspaper appears to have been hurt.   

Saman Wagarachchi, the Editor, was still summoned and questioned about the photo caption by the CID for several hours. According to Wagarachchi, the investigators had said they were questioning him due to the mentioning of forged notes. However, they refused to disclose who had made the complaint.  Police Spokesperson SSP Ajith Rohana, likewise, refused to divulge the identity of the complainant. 

This is ridiculous. If this run-of-the-mill line of lightheartedness is objectionable then cartoons would be out of order, satirical columns would have to be stopped. Collette, Wijesoma, Yoonus and other greats would have been out of jobs if the powers that be at the time they drew had dispositions as tender as that of the offended in this case.  We wouldn’t have been thrilled and educated by columns such as ‘King Barnett’, ‘Manige Theeruwa’, ‘Kasuruge Kolama’ etc.  ‘The Nation’ would have to drop its ‘lighter’ columns ‘View from Ritigala’, ‘Yakonet’ and ‘Meanwhile in a parallel universe’.  Editors would have to ensure that the end product is humor-free. 

That’s so not Sri Lanka, by the way.  We are a nation that is resilient and our resilience comes in part by our general ability to laugh things off and laugh at ourselves.  More seriously, though, this move by authorities to rap knuckles has to be roundly condemned on account of infringing upon media freedom. 

Saman Wagarachchi is a senior professional and is held in high esteem in the industry.  The line in question is at worst mischievous but any journalist and indeed most readers would call it ‘harmless’ if questioned on the matter. Readers would laugh and forget about it. Now they will find it hard to dismiss.  They will go ‘Aha!’ and ask themselves questions that are colored with suspicion.  That’s what over-zealous reaction does.
  
Best for all concerned to drop it, if necessary taking a cue from President Mahinda Rajapaksa.  This is Aluth Avurudda, the preeminent moment of national embrace.  It is for smile and laughter.  Let’s keep it that way. 

msenevira@gmail.com.
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