28 May 2020

‘Atulugama’ doesn’t exist, okay?

The Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka, in concurrence with the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka, introduced guidelines for ethical journalism covering a wide range of subjects. They included the issue of identification in terms of race, religion, caste, gender, sexual orientation etc.  Put simply, the ascribed identity of an individual is extraneous to acts such as theft, murder, embezzlement or any other infringement, be it the perpetrator or the victim, unless of course there is sufficient evidence that such things played a decisive role in the act.

Such guidelines are useful but they are obviously not as robust as laws. This is why we have the ‘ethical’ caveat. They can be and have been breached with impunity, more or less. The objective is also compromised by Article 14(a) of the Constitution, namely ‘the freedom of speech and expression including publication.’ ‘Freedom of expression’ is an easy excuse  for deliberate, mischievous and even vicious castigation of individuals and collectives. It lends itself to much abuse.

Collective action such as mob violence is different. The perpetrators almost always obtain from particular identities and they target victims, individuals or collectives, on account of particular identities or threats to their own. Consider the case of the Lankadeepa/Hiru correspondent for Bandaragama, Bimal Shyaman Jayasinghe.

Now Jayasinghe thought fit to cover the celebration of Ramadan amidst quarantine on May 24, 2020. He picked the village of Atulugama in Bandaragama. The choice was logical and newsworthy because Atulugama was one of the villages sealed of by authorities after a Covid-19 infection was discovered in the area. The village was ‘opened’ subsequent to health authorities determining it was safe to do so. Atulugama has a considerable Muslim population. Any decent head of any news agency would immediately sense that there could be multiple newsworthy stories in such a village during Ramadan.

Jayasinghe was doing his job. Jayasinghe had interviewed the Chairman of the Marawa Mosque, one Najim Hajjiar. He had gone with a photographer who was busy doing his job. Jayasinghe was attacked by a mob. The victim had lodged a complaint with the Police and five persons were subsequently arrested. The Police informed court that CCTC evidence indicates the suspects had indeed violated Articles 408 and 410 of the Penal Court and had moreover violated pandemic-related protocols pertaining to quarantining. The suspects (who made part of the mob) were remanded upon a directive of the Acting Magistrate, Panadura, Ranjith Rodrigo.

The frustration of the sequestered is not hard to understand. Scrutiny of any kind is not exactly relished by one and all. And yet, it is neither illegal not unethical for a journalist to investigate and report on situations that are reasonably believed to be of interest to the reader. The context is also colored by the fact that in several communities the devout had violated social distancing protocols set down by authorities fighting hard to control the pandemic. Freedom of association and freedom of religion were dented by such necessities. A generous (and obviously wealthy) person caused a stampede in which three persons died when he announced he would distribute cash to people celebrating Ramadan. All that, too, added to context.

It must be mentioned that violation of the social distancing protocol is widespread and not limited to those who put it aside on account of the primacy of affirming faith. What is of greater import here is the fact of violence.

Jayasinghe, whichever way you want to look at the matter, was legit. He was attacked and at least some of the suspects are in custody while the Police are looking for the absconding culprits. All good.

Such things happen. ‘Such things’ are not the preserve of the Muslim community. We have seen how all Sinhalese and all Buddhists are roundly, repeatedly (and even endlessly) castigated (as collectives) for the action of a few who claim to or are assumed to be representing collective interest. The individuals are named and shamed. The collectives they belong to as per accident of birth and/or tagged upon their insistence, are also named and shamed. We have seen this happening to the Tamil community as well, a fact that was unfortunately buttressed by elected Tamil representatives claiming that a terrorist group was in fact ‘the sole-representative of the Tamil people.’

The Lankadeepa, which reported the incident, took care not to mention a collective. The unnamed collective was however ‘named’ so to speak by mentioning a) Atulugama, b) a mosque and c) the name of an individual. They added to a communal identity. No way around it, one can argue. The question is, why should anyone look for ‘a way around it,’ when it is obvious that identity was the key factor in the attack?

Is it one of those crazy, ill-intentioned-but-couched-in-humanistic-terms yahapalana remnants? Is it about ‘the greater worth’ of inter-communal, inter-religious harmony? Is it about ‘reconciliation’? Is it about going easy on a community which partisan and ignorant outfits like Al Jazeera believe is ‘beleaguered’?

Well, there are no completely innocent and blameless communities in this world. There are no blameless majorities or minorities. The excesses of one do not justify excesses of another. Neither is it true that there are communities that ‘signatured’ by violence. There are, however, individuals who claim to speak for collectives. There are collectives that go silent when they are spoken for in violent ways and thereby offer, even partially, some level of consent. There are collectives and individuals who would attempt disassociation by saying things such as ‘they are not true practitioners,’ or ‘terrorists have no religion,’ never mind the fact that the said terrorists were/are affirming a faith that these objectors identify with.

There’s palpable go-easy on certain kinds of violence by certain communities. This is a clear instance. It is of course the prerogative of media institutions to pick and choose. They can headline an incident, pass it to ‘page 10,’ dilution or exaggerate or ignore altogether.

It’s different with rights advocates, however, especially those who claim to be champions Article 14(a) and media rights. They have on occasion cried out in horror when they’ve felt such things were violated, even going to the extent of mis-identifying as ‘journalists’ those who had weapons training and identified with terrorism. To date, they’ve not uttered one word about Bimal Shyaman Jayasinghe. Maybe it’s Covid-19 and they are officially ‘off-work.’ More likely, they are persuaded to be selectively sequestered, picking when and where to wear a mask or even a blindfold. Ostrich-like.

Back in the day, especially leading up to and following the Ceasefire Agreement between the then UNP Government and the LTTE, the ‘human rights’ hordes were afflicted with a disease which I called ‘Numb Finger Syndrome.’ They refused to call the LTTE a terrorist organization. Looks like that disease is quite resilient.

The danger is obvious. Varnishing the truth doesn’t help in the long run. The truth is what will help cure the warts and heal the wounds on skin and mind, of individuals and collectives. Ask the Lankadeepa/Hiru correspondent for Bandaragama, Bimal Shyaman Jayasinghe.