31 December 2014

When a nation is hung on a hook called ‘it is said’…

These are days of claim and counter-claim.  Easy days of finger-pointing.  Days when time is running short and where the basic requirement of claim-substantiation appears to have been retired.  A time, however, to think about these things. This was written five years ago, just before another presidential election and published in 'The Nation'.  

Those who are old enough would remember a man called T.B. Illangaratne.  He was a senior minister in the United Front Government led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1970-1977) and along with Hector Kobbekaduwa (another SLFP stalwart) was seen by some to be more ‘left’ and progressive than The Left, i.e. the red-flag-waving ‘comrades’ of the coalition. 

Illangaratne was the victim of a malicious rumour.  The UNP spread the story that he owned a hotel in Switzerland.  Nothing could make anyone believe otherwise.  Illangaratne lost his seat in 1977.  This defeat probably had more to do with the general public dissatisfaction with Mrs. Bandaranaike’s regime than this allegation of course.  The point is that people believed the story and with it came to be convinced that Illangaratne was a crook who used ‘ill-gotten wealth’ to purchase plush real estate abroad. 

Whether or not Illangaratne was a crook, even a petty one, is beside the point here. What’s important is that a story was cooked and a man hanged on it.  His reputation was tarnished beyond resurrection. 

There’s another such example.  Gamini Dissanayake.  It was said that he had purchased an apple orchard in Australia from kick-backs and what not he got from the Accelerated Mahaweli Project.  I remember someone saying that vendors in the Pettah were offering apples to people saying that they were ‘our apples’ (apema apel, Gamini Disanayake mahaththayage vatte vavapu eva – our very own apples, from Mr. Gamini Dissanayek’s orchard).  What was the source of this ‘story’?  It was said that the Far Eastern Economic Review had said that Gamini was one of the 10 wealthiest persons in South Asia.  The Far Eastern Economic Review had never made that claim.  Even today, I am sure, people think that Gamini Dissanayake’s family owns property in Australia

The sad thing is that rumours do not have authors who can be hauled to court for character assassination.  Rumours make a mockery of the principle of ‘innocent before proven guilty’. 

Elections bring the worst out of people, perhaps because the stakes are high and because people invest heavily in the candidates/parties, hoping for high returns later on.  It is not difficult to understand how people can quickly slip to by-hook-or-by-crook mode. 

This is happening all around us, especially in internet/email forums.  Wild allegations are being made.  One thing is missing: substantiation.  Reading them I felt that we can’t really fault candidates for being crass, uncouth and dirty little fibbers because that’s what the people are. It is one thing for campaign staff to manufacture lies and distribute them, but another thing for supporters to pass them around. I’ve seen people who are articulate, intelligent etc., forwarding emails that contain the most outrageous claims from the most dubious of sources which don’t have an iota of substantiation. 

We see the usual disclaimers of course: ‘it is said’, ‘it is reported’, ‘reliable sources say’, ‘according to sources close to (someone)’ etc.  What is interesting is that you can say anything you like and get away with it.  Throw in some creativity and you enhance believability.  That’s what campaigning is all about, isn’t it?

Illangaratne could not counter the rumours. Gamini Dissanayake could not either.  I am sure that there are countless others who have suffered. Maybe it was ‘just desserts’ for some, but then again, in a perfect world one is punished for crimes committed not those that are conjured up in the course of a vilification campaign motivated by political prerogative.

How can this vile practice be stopped?  I can’t think of a foolproof method given realities and costs involved.  What can be done is to treat these as one ought to treat rumour and anonymous letters: with contempt.  The best response is to laugh it off and do what should be done: respond with counter-claim/accusation where relevant but with substantiation.

That’s of course up to the politicians and I really don’t lose any sleep on account of their anxieties.  On the other hand, those who actively participate in the business of making allegations with no real proof are doing themselves a huge disservice if they really want things to change and hunger for a more benign political culture. 

One has to be the change one wants to see.  If what exists is bad then one is not going to change if by mimicking the bad.  Throw dirt to counter dirt and you end up with a huge pile of garbage and a big stink.  Think the politicians (the incumbent and the challenger) really care?  No, they don’t.  They are interested in power, not people, not decency.  We would be kidding ourselves if we believed otherwise.  There’s very little that the citizen can do.   But there is one thing that we can do. We can desist from engage in the vasuru keliya (shit-game) that is vilification (i.e. allegation without substantiation). 

Still want ‘change’, ladies and gentlemen?  Perhaps we should all take a look in the mirror.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.