Kath Noble

Cut off the telephone

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on June 10, 2009

How we are falling short in our response to attacks on journalists.

 Like the majority of people in Sri Lanka, I felt genuinely happy when Prabhakaran’s death was announced. This wasn’t because I am the bloodthirsty type. I was pleased because of what I perceived to be the implications. Sri Lankans could look forward to a brighter future now that such a ruthless and uncompromising group had been decapitated, I thought to myself.

This is what made last week’s attack on Poddala Jayantha so depressing. Five months ago, we were talking about the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, bemoaning the fact that there were people in this country who felt that words should be countered with bullets and knives. I wrote an article entitled ‘Stop all the clocks’, quoting the opening of a poem by W.H. Auden, in which I called for a stronger reaction against such thinking. The only consolation was that this kind of incident is a familiar symptom of conflict the world over, so hopefully there would be no repetition once peace arrived.

Today comes the second line, ‘Cut off the telephone’. I don’t know whether there is any connection between what happened to Lasantha Wickrematunge and Poddala Jayantha’s beating, but the two episodes certainly feel like they follow on from one another.

The Government hasn’t responded any more convincingly to the events of last week than it did five months ago. We all remember that its spokesman condemned Lasantha Wickrematunge’s killing, while the President ordered the Inspector General of Police to make all possible efforts to bring those responsible to justice, and a special team of investigators was appointed. The Media Minister urged us not to jump to any conclusions before the matter could be gone into properly.

Poddala Jayantha’s assault has provoked exactly the same reaction. The trouble is, given that the Police haven’t managed to do more than arrest the unfortunate man who stole Lasantha Wickrematunge’s mobile telephone, waiting to find out the truth is starting to look a bit foolish. It was already difficult to justify, given the failure to do anything about the intimidation of Keith Noyahr last year.

I realise that making assumptions is unfair, and there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for not clamping down. Crimes like this have gone unpunished for years in many places, even when political leaders didn’t have a conflict to deal with, but I don’t think that I’m the only person to believe that the Government just isn’t bothered.

The supposed protectors of media freedom haven’t got any better either. Reporters Without Borders issued a statement on the Poddala Jayantha attack claiming that the state media was endangering human rights activists by attacking people who criticised the Government.

A more sweeping assertion would be difficult to find, except in its own archives. After Lasantha Wickrematunge’s killing, it said that the Government was responsible because it had incited hatred against him, which was equally silly. People capable of such an assassination wouldn’t have needed any help to decide whether their actions were necessary. Meanwhile, criticism of human rights activists cannot be outlawed on the basis that some misguided souls might decide to take matters into their own hands. Reporters Without Borders would then have to campaign for attacks on the Government to be banned too, to avoid the possibility of angry citizens getting upset and launching an insurgency.

These interventions are rather pointless in any case, because such people have almost zero credibility in Sri Lanka now. Years of exaggerations in which they have tried to make us believe that the Sri Lankan media could not do anything other than parrot the official line are catching up with them.

Take the other recent statement by Reporters Without Borders. First, it claims that the Army Commander is going to prosecute all journalists who visited areas controlled by the LTTE. Well, let’s see. I went there once, and if I don’t get a call from the Police in the next few days, I will have confirmed that Reporters Without Borders is talking nonsense. It couples this assertion with complaints about reporters being prevented from accessing what it calls Tamil areas. I guess it doesn’t mean Wellawatta. Reporters Without Borders wants totally free access to IDP camps too. The war is over, it pontificates, so there is no longer any justification for restrictions. As I have said previously, anybody who claims that there is suddenly no need to worry about security is either being disingenuous or stupid.

It never ceases to appal me that the cause of press freedom has been appropriated by such people, and by Sunanda Deshapriya and his associates. Even exposure of financial misdeeds hasn’t stopped the latter running around Europe as if he were Sri Lanka’s foremost journalist. I have seen him and wept. Poor Europeans, little do we know that Sunanda Deshapriya is one of the least talented of the media community. Very few skills are needed for shouting outside Fort Station, and it seems that donors are ready to hand funds to any organisation that has a promising sounding name.

I believe that there are more important things to discuss now. Worse than Reporters Without Borders and the Government, others are at fault too.

When Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed, it was difficult to find anybody who had a good word to say about the man. Commentators were tripping over themselves to explain how biased his writings had been and why they considered him to have been an active supporter of Prabhakaran. Some went further, making claims about his personal life, attacking his religion even. Perhaps he was involved in forced conversions, I remember hearing somebody wonder. He had cheated on his wife, another claimed. People suddenly decided that it would be a good idea to repeat whatever stories came their way, even if they hadn’t a clue whether or not they were true. Obviously they weren’t relevant.

Likewise, a similar tendency is developing in referring to the attack on Poddala Jayantha. Simply condemning it doesn’t appear to do. There has to be reference to his links with the Working Journalists Association and the Free Media Movement, emphasising how bad these outfits are.

This is inappropriate in the aftermath of a criminal attack. Whoever is responsible is not going to be the slightest bit interested in stopping, nor is the Government likely to concern itself with the Police investigation, if the rest of the country is busy saying, oh well, they weren’t very good chaps anyway. If society is to rid itself of this nasty habit of meeting opinion with violence, and surely there aren’t many people who think that this is actually a good idea, the overwhelming feeling expressed in the country when such an incident takes place has to be one of unqualified horror. There can be no hint of a justification, even by way of explanation, in what is said.

 Otherwise, it won’t happen. Then we will get all the way to the end of that W.H. Auden poem, ‘For nothing now can ever come to any good’.

Perhaps it is too soon after Prabhakaran’s death to be thinking about the direction in which Sri Lanka is headed. I hope so, because it is not just in curbing intimidation of the media that action is needed. Sri Lankans expect many things to happen now that military operations are over, developments that they have waited for quite patiently all these years. Whether these materialise will depend on not just how much people want them, but how effectively they communicate their wishes to the Government. If few speak up, life won’t change as much as it should.

Ending the conflict is a magnificent achievement. I would like to be able to keep celebrating it for years to come.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on June 10th, 2009. The internet version can be accessed here.

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