Kath Noble

Enough is more than enough

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on February 20, 2013

Why our response to attacks on journalists has to be smarter

Faraz ShauketalyWe don’t seem to have learnt anything from the long list of journalists who have come under attack in Sri Lanka in recent years. Whenever an incident takes place, we do exactly the same things, and on each and every occasion, our response does nothing to prevent a recurrence.

The first step is condemnation. But why? Surely everybody agrees that it is wrong? Could anybody argue that the people who shot Faraz Shauketaly of The Sunday Leader on Friday did the right thing? No, so let’s not waste our time and energy. That such violence is appalling should be treated as so obvious that it simply doesn’t need to be said.

Then comes our dutiful reporting of what the President says about it, no matter how disingenuous his statement.

During the weekend, all newspapers in Sri Lanka were careful to inform the public that Mahinda Rajapaksa had ordered a special investigation into Friday’s shooting. How very nice of him. Has he instructed the IGP to appoint a special team? That’s reassuring. I can’t remember the last time he did that. Oh no, silly me, that’s what he does every time. That’s what he did when Lasantha Wickrematunge of The Sunday Leader was murdered in January 2009, when Poddala Jayantha of Dinamina was beaten up in June 2009, when Keith Noyahr of The Nation was attacked in May 2008, when Lal Mawalage of Rupavahini was knifed in January 2008 and when Prageeth Ekneligoda of Lanka-e-News went missing in January 2010. Every time.

And how many times have these extra special efforts brought results? That’s right, none at all.

Still, even The Sunday Leader decided to use the President’s declaration as the headline of the first piece that it posted on its website.

Let’s undertake here and now not to report any further such comments by any member of the Government until the perpetrator of at least one attack has been convicted and is rotting in jail for the rest of his miserable life. The headline should be ‘Nobody convicted for violence against journalists under Mahinda Rajapaksa’ not ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa orders a probe’. Come on, friends at The Daily Mirror and Ceylon Today, both of which followed the pattern set by The Sunday Leader!

Probes obviously have to happen when somebody is shot. They aren’t news, and they certainly aren’t worthy of mention in a headline.

The next step in our form book on responding to attacks on journalists, which at least some of us always seem to reach, is to raise the possibility that there was some other motive than stifling the freedom of the press.

This time, The Nation on Sunday has surpassed all previous efforts to suck up to Mahinda Rajapaksa, brazenly using the headline ‘Motive for attack shrouded in mystery’, while making sure to refer to Faraz not as a journalist but as a ‘journalist cum businessman’ with a ‘part-time journalistic career’. The funny thing is that his byline has appeared in Sri Lankan newspapers an awful lot more often than those of the ‘full-time journalists’ who produced that copy for The Nation on Sunday!

They went on to suggest that the shooting was actually the result of a land dispute.

However, they have absolutely no evidence of any such thing. Police sources just had to mention it is a possibility, and these ‘full-time journalists’ enthusiastically copied down what they said. The real mystery is why our colleagues at The Nation on Sunday don’t have time to run businesses, if that’s all there is to journalism! In case they hadn’t realised, everything is possible for exactly as long as we avoid looking for facts. There are several billion people who could possibly have shot Faraz. Even aliens will have to prove that they weren’t in Mount Lavinia on Friday before we can definitively rule them out.

That’s the whole point of a probe.

Until somebody is convicted, we can’t say for sure why it happened. So let’s not give credence to any more totally unfounded rumours that are so extraordinarily convenient for the Government.

If the Government really wants us to believe that press freedom isn’t a problem in Sri Lanka, it can very well prove it in a court of law. Why do we try so hard to help them?

Even years later, we are still at it.

The killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge of The Sunday Leader was a watershed moment for Sri Lankan journalists. He was one of the best known editors in the country and a personal friend of both Ranil Wickremasinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his was an English newspaper that was read by the diplomatic community and indeed throughout the world. But his assassins very easily got away with it.

If further attention was needed to his case, it was surely to expose the individuals who were responsible. But instead we are busy preparing their defence.

A month or so ago, Uvindu Kurukulasuriya published an article claiming that Lasantha Wickrematunge was targeted not because he ran a newspaper that regularly lambasted the Government but because he was an Indian spy! The mind boggles.

Apparently we don’t need proof when we accuse the dead. When the person isn’t around to defend himself, instead of proving that he was an Indian spy, we can just say that he was seen entering the house of an Indian diplomat, as if we didn’t know that it is both normal and necessary for journalists to interact with all kinds of people. That is how facts are uncovered! More extraordinarily still, when he can’t say otherwise, we can argue that he was killed because he told the Indian diplomat a ‘secret’ that was shared with him by Mahinda Rajapaksa, not only once again without proof but also without any idea what that ‘secret’ could be or why Mahinda Rajapaksa was so foolish as to tell it to an Opposition-supporting newspaper editor who could equally well have published it.

Lasantha Wickrematunge isn’t accused of being a Government spy, although he was also seen going to Temple Trees, because it obviously isn’t true.

The same piece slyly mentions that Poddala Jayantha was regarded by the American embassy as a key contact in Sri Lanka, implying once again with absolutely no basis that he too was more a spy than a journalist.

Now in the extremely unlikely event of anybody ever being tried for attacking either one of them, the accused might well claim that they were legitimate targets.

With enemies like these, the Government really doesn’t need friends!

Seriously guys, let’s smarten up.

Journalism is an absolutely miserable profession in Sri Lanka. If a journalist is honest, he earns little or nothing, and if he does his job well, he will at a minimum have to face near constant abuse from those who don’t like what he writes. And when he is a bit too successful and gets attacked, his friends and colleagues will dedicate themselves to discussing his faults, real and imagined, to convince people that he was never exactly a journalist anyway.

Frankly, only total lunatics need apply.

However, Sri Lanka needs journalists, and we need each other. So let’s try to stick together.

Given recent history, we are perfectly justified in assuming that Faraz Shauketaly was shot for his journalism. What’s more, we should make a point of looking back at his work and doing whatever we can to share it as widely as possible. We can hope that he will continue with it once he recovers, but he could no doubt do with some encouragement and support.

To that end, let’s turn to his most recent articles, several of which have focused on Lalith Kotelawala (17th February, 10th February, 27th January, 30th December). Faraz notes that when the Golden Key Credit Card Company collapsed, resulting in average losses of Rs. 2.7 million for more than 9,000 people, Chairman Lalith Kotelawala promised that they would be reimbursed very quickly. Indeed, this was the basis on which he was released from prison in 2009. However, although he somehow continues to live a life of luxury and his wife swans around upmarket areas of London, these unfortunate investors have still received no more than Rs. 200,000 each. The Central Bank under Ajith Nivard Cabraal, which for some reason disbanded an investigation into the company in 2006, claims that it had fulfilled its duty to the public by simply not including the company in the list of accredited financial institutions that it occasionally published.

Faraz has also written about a doctor in a private hospital who is alleged to have encouraged his patients to opt for unnecessary procedures, with the involvement of an unregistered foreign practitioner (February 3rd).

Prior to that came a series of pieces on coal imports, in which Faraz blames Ceylon Shipping Corporation Chairman Kanchana Ratwatte and former Minister of Power and Energy Champika Ranawaka for the loss of $10 million on a shipment that couldn’t be unloaded due to bad weather and was instead handed over without the necessary guarantees to a company that subsequently delivered a replacement that didn’t meet the quality standards of the Ceylon Electricity Board (6th January, 22nd December, 9th December, 24th November, 17th November, 10th November). He threatened to register a complaint with the Bribery Commission if action was not taken.

In addition, there have been articles on former National Savings Bank Chairman Pradeep Kariyawasam regarding the purchase of shares in The Finance Company for which he is already being investigated by the Bribery Commission following his wife’s falling out with the Government, and with regard to another incident during his tenure as Chairman of the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation in 2010 (1st December, 10th November).

It is these issues that we should be discussing now.

We also have to remind the public of all the violence that journalists have faced in Sri Lanka, and how few consequences there have been. People have short memories, and letting them forget is simply not an option.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 20th February 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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