03 February 2016

Media rights and self-immolation

Five years ago, writing to 'The Nation', I penned the following thoughts on the state, the then government and the issue of media freedom.  Back then I had little sympathy for chest-beating rights activists (for reasons detailed below).  I still have the same reservations.  I nevertheless faulted the then Government (for reasons detailed below). I don't believe things have changed all that much. 

The fact of regime-change is often mis-named 'revolution' or, as Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri would put it 'Low-intensity revolution'.  We have the securities of the 19th Amendment, but don't have the Right to Information Act.  We have the usual post-regime-change breathing space but the political culture and the politicians in the box seat are pretty much the same, in competence and intemperance.  There's a long way to go.  It's good to reserve the hurrahs, but it's more important to understand some of the complexities.

Last week the offices of the web news outfit known as ‘Lankaenews’ was torched.  A suspected arsonist is reported to have been arrested.  It is said that he was merely carrying out his end of a contract, the other party allegedly being an overseas agent.  These are still ‘early days’ of the investigation, considering that the relevant authorities took two years to nab a suspect in the attack on the Defence Secretary and are yet to apprehend those responsible for the assassination of former Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar.  As such, speculation as to motive and possible culprit can only be a mischievous exercise. 

Those who have crafted luxurious lives for themselves out of championing media rights are as expected up in arms about what they believe to be yet another attempt to stifle freedom of expression.  One notes with amusement that many of the so-called victims of the government’s alleged crackdown on journalists were media personnel second and terrorists first.  Some have whipped allegation into fact  and inflated molehill into mountain to obtain easy passage to what they believe are greener pastures in Europe and North America, from which happy locations they continue to rant and rave, less out of conviction than of the need to justify refugee-status, over an above of course the need to sing for supper, well-funded as they are by the principal enemies of Sri Lanka, the pro-LTTE sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora and fellow spoilers in the international community.

Their lies and their partiality to the LTTE and unabashed hatred for the current government, not to mention a manifest absence of ethics in the kind of journalism they practice, win them very few friends outside the incestuous NGO/INGO circles they operate in.  Even if one were to uncritically buy their contention that there’s no freedom of expression in this country, it is hard to show any outrage at the alleged ‘attack on media freedom’ that this act of arson is supposed to represent.  Let me explain.

These are people who are motivated less by some need to inform the general public about what’s happening in country and world than a malicious and political need to undermine the regime. That’s legitimate of course, but it doesn’t make them ‘journalists’ worthy of celebration.  The misinform more than they inform.  Secondly, ‘Lankaenews’ has a long history of pandering to the wishes of the LTTE, by political conviction, the identity of bosom buddy and in practice.  This act, therefore, can be read as a possible self-immolation or a version of the LTTE’s main weapon in the war against the people of Sri Lanka, the Suicide Bomber.  It is not the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last. 

Prageeth Ekneligoda, who wrote rubbish for Lankaenews and is celebrated as a ‘journalist’ in certain quarters where people with dubious agenda hang out, ‘disappeared’ himself a couple of years ago.  It’s been a year since he went missing.  The first act makes it hard to call the second one an act that sought to silence him.  When one writes
and plays out a script, and a pernicious story at that, one immediately offers detractor a splendid weapon.  The same goes for Tissainayagam.  He confirmed what many people suspected; that he was in the pay of the LTTE.  When one takes from a terrorist organization, one’s integrity is framed by the agenda of one pay-master.  When one compromises one’s own integrity, only one’s political friends will cry foul in the event something unfortunate happens. 

On the other hand, whether or not this was arson or self-immolation, it is clear that the fact it happened indicates serious rupture in the whole law and order regime.  True, a state can only do so much to protect each and every citizen and it gains no favours from the culture of lawlessness that has reigned and prospered for three decades courtesy of but not only because of the war.  Still, regardless of the politics and histories of victims of arson, assault, abduction, ‘disappearance’ and assassination, whether or not they can be called ‘journalists’, the fact remains that they remain citizens and to the extend they have not been charged in court of any wrongdoing, ought to have the same rights as the next person.  As such these are cannot-be-allowed-to-happen things.  They need to be investigated to conclusion. 

The fact is that this government has either been disinterested or incompetent in this regard.  Poddala Jayantha is not a journalist in my book, but he is most definitely a citizen.  He didn’t hit himself.  His attackers are still at large. Keith Noyahr, former Deputy Editor, The Nation, was not a terrorist or a Tiger sympathizer, by omission or commission.  He didn’t assault himself.  His attackers are still at large.  Upali Tennekoon, former Editor, Rivira, was a man who backed to the hilt the government’s strategy to eliminate the LTTE. He did not slash his face with a knife. His attackers are still at large.  The last two, in my book, have far more journalistic credentials than I do myself.  Forget all that. They were citizens.  The state failed them and the government is still to offer them the consolation of bringing closure of any kind to the wanton acts of terrorism they were victims of.

This is the other side of the self-immolation thesis.  The government, to the extent that it has failed to investigate to conclusion crimes of this nature, opens itself to attack for sloth, incompetence and, with each such incident, greater degrees of complicity. That people like Mervin Silva have on numerous occasions engaged in thuggery and got away with it despite enough and more evidence including video footage contributes to this perception. A government that could checkmate a terrorist of the most ruthless order by the name of Prabhakaran cannot find any excuse not to deal with a petty thug like Silva. 

Thus, even as one cannot be faulted for being reluctant to pay heed to the whines of media rights advocates given histories, history makes it tough not to fault the government for being guilty of contributing happily and enormously to the lawlessness that has made such acts part of ‘normalcy’. 

Both parties contribute and feed on each other.  That’s how the sides of coins work. Together.  All things considered, I believe the government has more to lose in the commerce of self-immolation. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com