Poddala Jayantha, Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association was abducted and assaulted on June 1, 2009. The ‘who’ and the ‘why’ of this attack is yet to be determined and I believe it is of little use to engage in conjecture.
On the other hand, this attack is not the first on a journalist. Over the years many journalists have been abducted, attacked and even killed. Some of these incidents have been investigated to conclusion and some have not.
I am not a member of any media collective. I believe that there are people out there who prefer quiescent journalists to relatively independent ones (‘an independent journalist’ is a non-existent creature) and I know that politicians are pretty sensitive creatures who for the most part don’t have what it takes to stomach criticism. At the same time, we have to keep in mind that journalists are hardly the saints they would like people to believe they are. Journalists are not above the law; they don’t enjoy any special immunity. They have enemies and not all of these enemies are in the Government.
We know that some arrests have been made. We know that Poddala Jayantha was quite an activist, even though one might not agree with the causes he championed or endorsed the policies his fellow-travellers.
Today, there are few, if any, who would stand up and say ‘this was wrong!’ when the news came that Poddala Jayantha had been attacked. Why? First, it was Poddala Jayantha who was attacked. He not only spouted nonsense on occasion regarding the situation in the country, but his organization had intimate dealings with forces that were actively operating to destabilize the country and give leg-room for the Tigers. Under these circumstances and especially after all such efforts have been comprehensively squashed, few would be ready to stand with Jayantha as per the basic civil duty of opposing anything outside the framework of the law. This is after all a period when everyone is a ‘patriot’ and when it is not easy to not be one.
Poddala Jayantha was never a patriot in the sense that he belonged to a motley group of disgruntled Enjoyists (NGO activists) whose livelihoods depended on bad mouthing the Government, the Sinhalese and the Buddhists. The organization he was associated with, the Working Journalists’ Association and its sister organizations in the sphere of agitation are moreover are currently in the dock (along with Jayantha and his pals Sunanda Deshapriya and Balasuriya) for perpetrating fraud. He was certainly a man whose hand can be held even in a moment of tragedy only with trepidation.
Let me repeat, I do not wish to go into the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of this attack. At the same time, one needs to remember that there have been strident ‘expose and kill’ calls regarding journalists and others deemed to have acted against the national interest. Such cries have been raised perhaps by a nationalist urge that has spilled over the boundaries of reason and the need to respect the structures that dispense justice in this country. A moment of euphoria cannot be grudged a nation that has suffered for 30 years under the shadow of terrorism, but that does not justify in any way the call for lynch-mobs.
I should mention also, that not all ‘patriots’ lighting crackers in the print and electronic media were exactly patriotic during those long years when one was called ‘war monger’ or ‘racist’ for saying that the LTTE must and can be defeated militarily. As my friend Shamindra Ferdinando observed in a good-humoured tone laced with a dash of irony, the media war was the private property of ITN and Rupavahini. Until they came into the picture, the media and journalistic fraternity in general was ‘unpatriotic’, they would have us believe.
This mindless ‘call for blood’ may or may not have precipitated this incident. It may be come from elsewhere, but it should alert all of us to the dangerous consequences of irresponsible journalism. On the one hand, a cogent argument can be made for arguments of the Jayantha-asked-for-it kind, even though, strictly speaking Jayantha was not a journalist and not even a working journalist but a person who profited from activism and a man who is under a shadow for defrauding organizations he is associated with. On the other hand, this lets-bypass-the-law attitude is the bread and butter of the worst kind of anarchy possible. We can’t afford it.
The self-immolation of Ven Bowatte Indraratnana Thero raised many questions. Whatever the late Thero’s intentions may have been, it is unlikely that ‘media ethics’ or lack thereof was something that prompted the horrifying act. That, however, is what we are left with.
The action or rather inaction of those who may have been able to prevent the tragedy, especially the journalist who was ‘in the know’ has spurred much debate on what really constitutes ‘responsibility’ for people in the media industry.
At panel discussion on the subject organized by the Sri Lanka Press Institute, a young journalist Tharaka Basnayake, had asked the following question: ‘How does citizen journalism fits into codes of ethics since almost all the mainstream media outlets encourage citizens to capture whatever they desire and with regard to Indrarathana Thero’s self-immolation, most of the ordinary citizens were busy capturing the action with their mobile phones (against their conscience)?’
The question is simple: ‘Is the journalist’s duty to capture spectacle or whatever is newsworthy as per the dictates of professionalism or react humanely to a situation where choice of action/inaction can make a different between life and death?’ Put another way, ‘Can there ever be guidelines to inform a professional when to drop professional garb and when to put on larger humane clothing?’
It is something we can talk about forever.
The Government has found it fit, under these circumstances, to come up with ‘ethical guidelines’ for journalists. The Government has been fittingly lampooned in the press for the presumptuousness of the exercise, given the fact that politicians and state media personal have hardly covered themselves in glory on account of ethical behavior.
The humor, however, should not stop with the Government or the State Media or even journalists in general. ‘Ethics’ is a rare commodity, so rare that rather than rarity resulting in high value it has reverted to the other extreme in valuation: nothing. Ethics is talked about. It is scripted into professional oaths. It is tossed into advertising copy. It is almost as though the word would make palatable any excrement as such is dished out by the corporate world or by professional entities. All it takes is to say, ‘we are ethical’. But are we?
This is the age of the spectacle. This is the era of instant gratification. By omission or commission this world has either embraced or resolved to submit to Mr. Spectacle. All that glitters may not be gold, but glitter fetches a better price than ethics in the market, let us acknowledge. Even crap that is glitter-clothed or worse, glitter-labeled, let us add!
Is he who demands honor, himself honorable? Is she who demands ethical behavior herself ethical in her behavior? Who are the saints here? The truth is that ‘ethics’ cannot be legislated. They cannot be advertised. In short there’s no market for ethics. That’s the brutal fact that is being ignored in the debate.
Today’s market is full of goods and services deliberately marked with planned obsolescence; things are made to break (sooner rather than later) with adequate caveats in the small print regarding warranties to insure the vendor. And what’s good for refrigerators, laptops, mobile phones and iPods is good for the media too. It works. Stories are re-invented. A women jumps into a well with a baby and the media shares the savory details in a way that prompts another depressed individual to execute a copy-cat jump that will continue to keep the media in business. One story is crafted in a way that a follow-up story will result. So what’s new? What’s ‘unethical’ about it? It’s just business as usual in the 21st Century, isn’t it?
The question can be asked, ‘isn’t this how it always was?’ Yes, there were always neethi (laws) and there were always reethi (customs). The difference is that in times gone by, the latter prevailed over the former. The latter drew from an ethical template.
The incident resulted in an interrogation of the media on the subject of ethics, interestingly by those who really don’t have the right to talk about ethics. There cannot be ethics in isolation. There cannot be ethics for some but not for others. But laws, we know, are selective and prejudiced in favor of the powerful, i.e. those who have money or power or both.
Still, that fact alone is not enough to settle for ‘business as usual’. Self-regulation begins with self, it goes without saying. We, the media, as a tribe, are but one part of society and can claim rightful share to its glories and resolve to own up to its shame. We could play safe and say ‘let’s see you go first!’ but that’s cop-out option.
We cannot get anyone to pay for even a tiny advertisement pleading ‘Let’s be ethical’. We can but be ethical, as per our sense of right and wrong, regardless of professional dictates (which too, let us not forget, are for the most part ‘owned’ by corporate prerogatives).
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com
If Azad Salley is a terrorist in the producing, a terrorist who has to be pre-empted by recourse to detention below the Prevention of Terrorism Act, or a promoter of fanatical, fundamentalist ethno-religious hatred, he comes with the strangest of profiles.
Far from becoming born into and raised in anything like a backward, fundamentalist, religiously fanatical background, his father was a Communist (as comrade DEW Gunasekara could confirm) who later became a Maoist (or ‘Marxist-Leninist’). ‘Communist Salley’ as he was recognized, didn’t appear to have an ethno-religious bone in his physique.
Azad’s father wasn’t only a communist, he was a journalist and he wasn’t a journalist for a Saudi fundamentalist Wahhabi newssheet. He was a long time employee of Reuters. I was introduced to the slim, be-spectacled ‘Communist Salley’ by Mervyn de Silva, my father, at the tele-printer at the Reuters office.
My father had also introduced me to George Rajapaksa, his classmate and Cabinet Minister of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration, at the latter’s residence down Flower Road. George Rajapaksa was of course the uncle of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers.
It is a tale so redolent of Sri Lanka’s ironic, typically absurdist trajectory and travails, that the son of one particular of these (leftwing) personalities introduced to me by my father, has been detained beneath the administration of the nephew of one more albeit far better known (progressive) personality, doubtless by yet another nephew of that personality.
When Azad and I ran into every other, it was at former Mayor Sirisena Cooray’s property. Azad was a vibrant, jocular, spirited young UNP politician who attended every single Premadasa commemoration that I was at (the last being 1999). We lost track of each and every other since, but I was not surprised that he had joined Mahinda Rajapaksa. I was even much less shocked to hear that he had debated the BBS spokesperson on television in Sinhala, and from what I gathered, got the much better of the polemical exchange.
Of course Azad is one thing of a firebrand, just as Mahinda Rajapaksa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gunawardena and Mavai Senadirajah were at the exact same age (and stage of their politics). His rhetoric was definitely no more militant than that of Cabinet Ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka.
Azad did punch back rhetorically when Islamophobia was lately unleashed in our public domain. He was a spirited young man and may have felt compelled to speak out by the conspicuous silence and pusillanimity of much more established Muslim politicians. By no means has the absence of Ashraff been felt far more acutely. Salley may possibly also have spotted a political opening. Because when is that a crime?
If Azad had to be arrested for incitement, what of the far much more explicitly hostile, antagonistic and hateful speech at public rallies and street agitations by allegedly Buddhist organisations, all of which have gone international on YouTube? Who is investigating the leaflets bearing violent , threatening graphics of swords and leaping swordsmen, and which advertise events explicitly as ‘rebellions’ or ‘uprisings’?
Surely, even-handedness needs a crackdown on fundamentalist incitement of a majoritarian assortment, just as on those emanating from minority sources? In the absence of such balance, even-handedness and organic justice, what does the arrest of Azad Salley and the circumstances of his detention make this government and far more importantly the Sri Lankan state look like in the eyes of the globe?
Was Azad arrested because he dared to speak back, to debate? Is it that he was an uppity nigger who needed to be taught a lesson an articulate and upfront young Muslim who had to be locked up as an instance to the minorities and as a sacrifice at the altar of Sinhala supremacism a sop to a Sinhala Cerberus?
If I were a human rights activist or diplomat campaigning in Geneva on Sri Lanka, the arrest of Azad Salley would make my day. Conversely, if I were nonetheless the Sri Lankan Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, I would face an acute diplomatic and moral-ethical difficulty.
Of the 13 member states that voted for us in Geneva this year, 7 were from the OIC. It was the Muslim (perhaps I should say ‘halal’) Bala Sena that saved Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and the Sinhalese Buddhists from a humiliating defeat in Geneva this time. We would have been down to six votes with no that assistance fewer than the votes obtained by Syria at the UNHRC, and even Libya prior to the intervention. Whilst it voted in our favour, the OIC has also created a demarche in Jeddah about anti-Muslim coercion and threats in Sri Lanka, even though the OIC Ambassadors based in Colombo have met the President. How will the OIC vote go in March 2014?
So, here, in the meanwhile, is Salley, a mainstream politician, a former Deputy Mayor of Colombo, a man whose photograph with President Rajapaksa shows excellent mutual cordiality and warmth, who has been detained beneath the Prevention of Terrorism Act, without a single weapon or bullet found anywhere near him or a solitary act of violence becoming related with him.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act is meant precisely for what it says: the prevention precisely of terrorism. Was Azad Salley a founder, leader, member, supporter or sympathizer of an armed terrorist group? There are no unarmed terrorist groups, it have to be stated. If they are unarmed, they are not or not yet, terrorist. Was he verifiably planning to organize one particular? If so which, when and where?
Has any act of violence resulted from something that Azad Salley has stated or done? If so which, what, when and where?
If any offense has been committed by Salley, why has it not been placed in the public domain? Why is it shrouded in secrecy? Why has Salley not been charged beneath the standard laws of the land? Why has he not been granted unfettered access to counsel, family and visitors?
If this is the therapy meted out in peacetime to an unarmed electoral politician, what might have happened in Welikada? What should have occurred in wartime to numerous other people? What may possibly be taking place now, outdoors of Colombo, in the former conflict zones, to Tamils?
These are the questions that would logically happen to any person and could be legitimately raised in Geneva and elsewhere.
Let us assume that Azad Salley produced some imprudent, even intemperate remarks to a publication and even an audience of activists, in Chennai. The periodical in query, Junior Vikatan, it have to be noted, is edited by Cho Ramaswamy, a courageous lonely crusader against the Tigers considering that the 1980s. Neither he nor the journal can be remotely characterised as subversive or secessionist. Something can be lost in translation even though.
No matter. What ever Azad may possibly have said, it could have been countered by correct revelation in the mass media, and subsequent critique and open debate. An notion, nevertheless erroneous or indefensible, have to and can only be countered by one more concept, not by arrest and detention for 90 days. That is if you are committed to standard democratic values and practices though.
If nonetheless, a government or a state chooses to use the strongest legislation in its armoury to punish the expression or exchange of suggestions, even so erroneous, that government or state runs the risk of revealing itself or obtaining itself depicted by critics, as undemocratic and authoritarian. As a result it is the repressive action of the regime rather than anything that Azad Salley might have stated that brings discredit to Sri Lanka and offers ammunition to those who seek international investigation.
Does the detention of Azad Salley assist avoid terrorism or does it contribute to the opposite outcome of radicalisation?
The answer to that query lies in our knowledge as a society. In 1972, a couple of dozen young Tamils were detained due to the fact they had hoisted black flags in protest against the promulgation of the Republication Constitution, ignoring the written entreaties of the Tamil parliamentary political leadership headed by SJV Chelvanayakam. These young males had not engaged in any violent activities. They were held in detention for 5 years.
At the time of their arrest there was no armed movement in Jaffna. By the time of their release in 1977, the Tigers had commenced armed operations, whilst the EROS/GUES had been formed in London and obtained weapons coaching in Lebanon. Those in doubt may possibly check with Karuna, KP, Suresh, Siddarthan and Douglas.
It was certainly not these in detention who initiated this armed movement, since they couldn’t even though behind bars. Nonetheless, their quite presence behind bars for non-violent activism mightily strengthened the argument of these shadowy figures like the teenaged Velupillai Prabhakaran, that there was no space for and no point in something but armed actions.
As a result, the detention by the state of unarmed political activists in no way acted as a deterrent to armed violence and terrorism, but truly radicalized the tactics and later the strategy itself of the politics of the Tamil minority.
What is the signal that Azad’s therapy sends out to the disaffected youth and the shadowy groups that may possibly exist in the Eastern province? As with Tamils, so also probably with Muslims, but is that the insidious intent?
Sri Lanka is to consider assisting India in combating the threat posed by LTTE elements said Minister of Media Keheliya Rambukwella.
Answering a query of a journalist at the Cabinet media briefing held in Colombo a short while ago (16), he said that Sri Lanka will consider on the issue if such a request is made and the country will share all its experiences in combating terrorism.
India is the neigbhouring country of Sri Lanka who has had strong ties for centuries mentioned the Minister.
The Minister mentioned this commenting on the very recent reports on LTTE attempts to take the lives of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and TamilNadu Chief Minister M Karunanidi. These details were revealed by the intelligence units of the country.