Kath Noble

Mud that makes the blood boil

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 18, 2012

What we can learn from the Government’s attempts to control news websites

These days, I rarely feel like thanking the Government for anything. It squandered the opportunity it had post-war to push through a deal with the TNA and put the country on a new and more productive, forward-looking track, preferring instead to focus on consolidating its own power. Now the discussion is back to its old pattern, with neither side trusting the other and neither side feeling like compromise. Meanwhile, it has allowed the law and order situation to get out of control, dependent as it has become on thugs. Politics hasn’t become any cleaner or less violent with peace. The Government is quite happy to associate with thieves, rapists and murderers so long as they agree to join the UPFA. As a result, anybody who disagrees with one of its policies is liable to be threatened or worse, as I said last week.

However, the Government’s stupidity is sometimes quite helpful. We can learn a lot from its mistakes.

Its decision to raid two news websites, for example, was of great use to those of us interested in finding out what is going on in the country. The last few years have seen amazing growth in the number of sources on the internet, and it is quite impossible to read all of them – I would like to thank the Government for pointing us in the direction of the most interesting.

This is exactly what happened with TamilNet when it was blocked during the war, then with LankaeNews. They suddenly developed even greater followings.

The claim is that these internet sources publish stories that aren’t true. The Government calls it mudslinging, which is certainly not a good idea unless the slinger is already wallowing in mud.

I must say that the first bit of mud that caught my eye while checking out the latest targets of the Government’s ire wasn’t all that exciting. Who cares which minister has been having an affair with a ‘popular teledrama actress’. Not me, certainly. Their personal lives are matters for their families, not the nation – people have enough to worry about with what they get up to at the office. Still, I have high hopes that I will eventually find some important mud in the mix.

A unique feature of the Government’s attempts to control the internet is its uncanny ability to attract highly embarrassing condemnation from across the globe while achieving absolutely nothing. Witness the most recent episode, in which the police swooped into the offices of the Sri Lanka Mirror and Lanka X News, arresting everybody in sight (including the tea lady, according to Jehan Perera) and finding precisely nothing incriminating – what, they don’t keep proof of the untruth of their stories in a filing cabinet marked ‘Our Dastardly Scheme To Tarnish The Image Of Sri Lanka And Its Patriotic Leaders’? Even better, they did it using a law that was repealed several years ago! Very professional.

This provided the perfect excuse for all those countries who are far more cunning in their suppression of matters inconvenient to the establishment to issue sanctimonious statements warning the Government about media freedom. Extraordinarily, they are yet to learn that such utterances only persuade people in this country that the Government might not have done what it is accused of and even if it did this might not be such a bad thing.

Still, the Government is concerned about its image, as it needs to be if it wants to avoid action being taken against it internationally. The number of sanctimonious statements is an indicator of how keen the issuers are in their efforts to chastise the Government.

The Government has now compounded its foolish decision with yet another one. It has announced that it is going to levy fees on news websites – Rs. 100,000 for registration and Rs. 50,000 annually thereafter. The suggestion is that these charges will dissuade mudslingers.

Of course this is also very silly. Mudslingers are not short of money, and they will happily pay several times these amounts for the pleasure of attacking the Government. They are also perfectly capable of moving their operations out of the country should that become necessary.

This is on par with the blocking of TamilNet and LankaeNews. Note to the Government – we all know how to use proxy servers!

The Government will not succeed in controlling internet sources, no matter how much time and energy it dedicates to the task. It is not China. Even there total control has proven impossible to sustain (despite a 30,000 member internet police force, as reported in The Guardian), and Sri Lanka’s culture makes it ridiculous to even think of trying to replicate the Chinese model here.

If mudslinging is a problem, the best way of dealing with it would be to encourage the print media. News websites only really become popular when people believe that newspapers don’t contain everything they need to know. For a start, newspapers are better written. Readers need not grapple with sentences like this one from the mission statement of Sri Lanka X News – ‘The people’s campaign against injustice is not just a large crowd, rather its aim is to transform into a massive tsunami of large crowds which does not cease until it reaches the peak of the mountain defeating the evil dragon of the sinister rogues, and lighting the lamp of democracy at that very point’. Sorry?

Newspapers are also more responsible. Although of course there are exceptions to every rule, the fact that the print media is subject to a certain amount of regulation is reassuring for readers. While over-regulation is clearly also a problem, readers do want to know that some kind of standards apply. We don’t actually want to be told untruths.

However, the Government shows no signs of enlightenment on that front either. Last week’s verbal abuse of a well known editor by the Defence Secretary makes this clear. While people who appreciate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for his role in crushing the LTTE have fallen over themselves trying to excuse his outburst, presenting it as understandable in the circumstances, the circumstances actually make it inexcusable. Undoubtedly it must be very annoying for one of the most powerful people in the country to be questioned about his request to have the national airline use a particular pilot to fly in a puppy from Geneva, especially if he didn’t know that this would result in passengers being offloaded and revenue lost. (By way of an aside: can foreign dogs actually tell who is flying the plane?) We all know Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has a terrible temper. But that is not the point.

The point is that Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed and his killers have not been found. Journalists, especially those occupying the position he once held, are right to be wary of threats. They have not always been empty. The Government claims that it is unable to solve all crimes, which is fair enough, but it is perfectly capable of reassuring journalists that it is at least trying to ensure that no further damage is done. Responding to queries in a measured tone would be a minuscule yet useful step in that direction.

What does it say about the Government that it cannot even be bothered to pretend to be tolerant? Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is not the only guilty party – others who made absolutely zero contribution to the war effort are allowed to talk at will of breaking the limbs of journalists.

Now a journalist associated with one of the raided news websites claims to have narrowly escaped abduction – or as the Government put it to the United Nations with regard to Prageeth Ekneligoda, transport to a heavenly existence elsewhere. I expect the Attorney General has been reliably informed that the people who tried to bundle Shantha Wijesuriya into a van in Nugegoda were just trying to offer him a ride home since it looked like rain.

Prageeth Ekneligoda’s case is another of the Government’s mistakes that we must learn from. He disappeared more than two years ago, and some people have wasted a lot of ink in discussing his capabilities as a correspondent and cartoonist and his extra-curricular activities of various kinds, when they should have been looking for evidence of his incarceration or murder. It was easy for the Government to get away with its barefaced lie that it knew very well that he had left his family and gone overseas.

It was the unusual specificity of its denial of responsibility that was eventually its undoing, since it could not substantiate its statement when questioned during the hearing into Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance – I don’t mind thanking the Government for that too.

Such moments of truth help us to see things more clearly. They show that there’s a lot of mud to be cleaned up.

What I find most extraordinary in all this mess is the lack of confidence it seems to indicate on the part of the Government. The vast majority of people in this country were one hundred percent behind it at the end of the war, and most of them continue to support the administration despite the numerous problems that have emerged, including the rising cost of living. This has now been proven in many different elections. The UNP has been caught up in a desperate and frankly very dull leadership tussle for years, meaning that it constitutes very little of a challenge to anybody, while the JVP too has lost its momentum after its latest split. The Government ought to be feeling free to move ahead with a positive, visionary plan that will guarantee its popularity into the next decade, instead of flailing around like a drowning man. I can only assume that it has run out of ideas and it is afraid of being found out.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 18th July 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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