For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
By Ranga Jayasuriya
A group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, Journalists for Democracy (JDS) and Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) have launched a global appeal to boycott the Galle Literary Festival.
The appeal has reportedly compelled Nobel laureate and Turkish author Orhan Pamuk and Booker Prize winning Indian writer Kiran Desai to pull out of the GLF, which is scheduled to take place in the southern city of Galle next week. Among the signatories of the appeal are Noam Chomsky, Arundathi Roy, Ken Loach, Antony Loewenstein, Tariq Ali and Dave Rampton,
This article is not about the GLF itself. (Better qualified writers had dealt with the subject in the previous issues of this newspaper.)
The objective of this article is to discuss the dynamics of media activism in this country and why it has become a fools paradise, which has now descended to a level of idiosyncrasy, it has been never before, by appealing to boycott a 5-1literary event (at least, so say the organizers of the GLF), which is remotely associated with the State.
“We believe this is not the right time for prominent international writers like you to give legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government’s suppression of free speech by attending a conference that does not in any way push for greater freedom of expression inside that country,” say JDS and RSF in the appeal.
I myself was at a loss, unable to discern, as to how the boycott of the GLF would better the case of the Sri Lankan media. So I sent a questionnaire to the JDS, some of whose members I personally knew when we worked together in the Sri Lanka Working Journalist Association (SLWJA.). JDS replied to my mail last evening only after our first edition went to press. We have published their reply in full in our late city edition. (See box)
The problem with the media activism in this country is that it has, historically, been prone to be hijacked by charlatans. Its recent history would bare witness to this. In its heydays, the Free Media Movement was a force to reckon with and was instrumental in the ouster of semi autocratic UNP regime in 1994. However, FMM’s heydays soon ended after its lead actors secured key positions in the state run Lakehouse and Rupavahini under the Chandrika Kumarathunga Administration..
Concerns over the personal integrity of the frontrunners of media activist groups have always hovered over media protest campaigns. Some allegations were not more than character assassinations, but, others, in fact, were proved to be true.
A disparate lot
That is one reason as to why most journalists in mainstream media have shunned media activist groups. The preponderance of the membership of groups like FMM and SLWJA, of which this writer himself is an executive committee member, come from so called alternative media. Whenever, the mainstream press is represented, that happened to be by a backbencher, though there had been exceptions to this norm in the past.
The non-representation of the mainstream media in the sphere of media activism boils down to the very nature of the media fraternity in Sri Lanka, which itself is a disparate lot.
It is unequal because the media entrepreneurs have shown a historical proclivity to hire anyone who would work for pea nuts, irrespective of their competency.
That is why a sizeable number of journalists in this country happen to be accidental journalists, who ended up in journalism by accident. But, journalism requires a rigorous intellectual training, in the absence of which journalists would relegate themselves to the status of stenographers, whose sole job is to reproduce notes from press conferences.
The conventional wisdom that newsroom is the best training ground for budding journalists is both right and wrong. One could not generally master journalism without being a news reporter at some point in his or her career, though there are exceptions to this norm.
But, equally important, one would never be a good news reporter without necessary analytical insights, which could only be accomplished through an intellectual exercise.
(Though diploma courses at the College of Journalism would be a good first step for the budding journalists, journalism training in this country needs to be expanded to graduate level interdisciplinary courses.)
Back to the composition of the media fraternity; apart from a large swath of ‘accidental’ journalists, there are a handful of others who make the real intellectual contribution to journalism. And though outspoken in their articles, they prefer to keep away from media activism. And where angels fear to tread, fools rush in.
Worse still, now the campaign to restore media freedom in this country has been hijacked by a couple of exiles living off the generosity of Germany’s far left Green party.
JDS and RSF could say any thing, but media associations in this country should also have their own opinion. And we are yet to hear about their position on the JDS’s campaign.
It should be made loud and clear that this writer is not an apologist of the Rajapaksa Administration. It was only last week that we highlighted the climate of impunity in this country. The top political and military leadership stand condemned, at least for some, high profile killings, assaults and disappearances of media personnel. Over twenty media employees were killed, many more were assaulted and some others were forced into self exile during the last few years.
Smell a rat
Journalists and media owners are being compelled to exercise self censorship. Intolerance has taken root. And tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the disappearance of the cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda.
But, I am baffled as to how the boycott of the Galle Literary Festival could help improve the media freedom in Sri Lanka. If it does help, I will be among the first to sign the online petition on the website of the JDS.
But, I could smell a rat. This campaign has a far more sinister agenda. This is part of a wider “Boycott Sri Lanka” campaign launched by the British Tamil Forum.
This would not help improve media freedom in this country, nor would it better the lot of despondent Tamils in Jaffna. In reality, it is remotely concerned with the fate of Prageeth.
This campaign could only help a few exiled ‘journalists’ to justify their asylum requests. Note that I said, a few, because some journalists, in fact, have had genuine fears. Poddala Jayantha begin_of_the_skype_highlighting end_of_the_skype_highlighting would not have fled, had not the alleged state apparatus abducted and crippled his legs. Nor would Sanath Balasuriya, had not he been forced to flee.
I can’t say the same about many others, there could be exceptions such as Keith Noyar who himself was abducted and beaten.
But, there are others who need to justify their sojourn in the West and this campaign to boycott the GLF is for them.
Why we call for the boycott: JDS explains
Journalist for Democracy has answered to a set of questions sent to them via email by Lakbima News.
We publish below their reply in full:
What is your rationale in boycotting the Galle Literary Festival?
The international appeal launched by RSF/JDS does not ask anyone intending to attend the GLF, to boycott the event. If the renowned writers failed to express their concerns about the precarious conditions faced by the fellow writers and journalists, while attending a literary festival in a country where journalists/writers are killed and imprisoned simply for writing stuff that offends the regime, it simply legitimizes the status quo. Therefore, what the appeal calls for is “to consider Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record and targeting of journalists” and to “ask in the great tradition of solidarity that binds writers together everywhere, to stand with your brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka who are not allowed to speak out” by “sending a clear message that, unless and until the disappearance of Prageeth is investigated and there is a real improvement in the climate for free expression in Sri Lanka, you cannot celebrate writing and the arts.”
As a matter of fact, nearly 23 media workers (including journalists) have either been killed or disappeared since December 2005. That excludes Prageeth Eknaligoda, who went missing on the 24th of January 2010. So far not a single perpetrator has been brought to book and no single case has been investigated in a satisfactory manner. Anyone, who is intending to attend a literary event in Sri Lanka in such a context, needs to make sure that his or her fame could not be used to strengthen the intensive state propaganda campaign to promote the country’s image as a ideal tourist destination where normalcy reigns and free space for cultural interaction exists. It is their moral obligation to make a stand to show that they are aware and are really concerned about the fate of their fellow writers and journalists who have fallen victim to repressive policies. If not, their glamor and passive appearance would provide the legitimacy that the state desperately needs to cover up the recent past, which is buried in a sea of corpses. That is the essence which lies at the centre of the campaign. Does it sound too sympathetic towards Tigers? Well, as far as the facts are concerned, we take the liberty to totally disagree with such narrow minded assumptions.
Are you aware that the GLF isn’t a state sanctioned project, but is a community project to showcase the heritage of English literature in this country?
We are well aware that the event is not directly organized by any state institutions. If that had been the case, we wouldn’t have hesitated to call for a boycott in plain and clear terms. We do have great respect towards some of the people involved in the event, whose commitment to democracy and human rights is admirable. Nevertheless, it does not prevent us from looking at the bigger picture and inviting others to do likewise. The Galle Literary Festival, either intentionally or not, overlaps with the massive propaganda drive of the Sri Lankan government aiming to promote Sri Lanka as a peaceful tourist destination where a considerable liberal space for free cultural life flourishes without any interference of the state. You describe it as a “ community project to showcase heritage of English literature of Sri Lanka”. Going through the programme itself shows that it is a misconception. If there is any community involved in setting this up, it is clearly the business community.
As for the heritage of “English literature of Sri Lanka,” we don’t see much showcased in the programme. However, the main thrust of the event is clearly promoting the virtues of a ‘free land’ where life is normal. Going through the list of sponsors and what they offer clearly calls upon the visitor to indulge in many luxuries which neither the ordinary writer/ reader or journalist can enjoy due to the poverty of the nation and the prevailing culture of insecurity.
How would your proposed boycott help improve media freedom back home?
There were many who believed that the media situation in the country will be better following the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Forgetting the dead and not meting out justice does not auger well at any time for media freedom. It also questions the level of civilization. Lasantha was killed during the war and Prageeth went missing after the government declared the land to be under one rule. These two incidents are evidence that the situation has not improved. We as an organization will take every opportunity to raise the dire situation the country is faced with on its human rights and media freedom record. That Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai have already pulled out shows that there are people on this earth who have a conscience and are prepared to take action to improve the situation anywhere in the world. It is rather frustrating that some who have stood for freedom of expression in the past is now shooting the messenger rather than using the discussion to call for speedy accountability.
Haven’t you become a cat paw of the extremist elements of Tamil Diaspora and an instrument of their campaign to boycott anything associated with Sri Lanka?
It has become a fashion statement of the state to call any dissenter a ‘tiger paw’. When a senior journalist too uses that term on an organization, it speaks volumes of how far the suppression and censorship goes. RSF and JDS have been in the scene for some time highlighting the HR issues in Sri Lanka and you would recall that it is not the first time both these organizations were called Tiger lovers. It is not the feeling that matters when one is faced by the truth, but the real facts. The facts being, Sri Lanka is run by a regime that does not value human rights or freedom of expression among other wrongdoings and this will be not the last time that it’s record will be brought to question. Therefore we call upon all freedom loving people at large and Sri Lankans in particular to raise your voice to make Sri Lanka a place where justice and freedom prevails. If there is no effective mechanism to raise these issues within our country for obvious and terrifying reasons, we would not hesitate to highlight the issues in whatever forum possible.