By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“That is a slave’s lot – not to be able to speak one’s mind”. – Euripides (Ion)
In Turkey, an attempt to uproot a public park and build a shopping mall ignited a tidal-wave of protests which is yet to abate.
In Saudi Arabia, innumerable Islamic sites are being annihilated in the name of ‘development’, with nary a protest. “No one has the balls to stand up and condemn this cultural vandalism” laments Dr. Irfan Al Alawi, Executive Director of the Islamic Heritage Foundation; “we have already lost 400-500 sites”[i].
Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have Sunni-Muslim majorities. But Turkey is a secular-democracy, albeit a flawed one, while Saudi Arabia is a theocratic-monarchy.
In Turkey, there is a strong tradition of community resistance to arbitrary decisions and overbearing attitudes of authorities. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk in a recent comment drew a continuum between the Taksim protests and a long-ago attempt by his extended family to save a beloved 50-year-old chestnut tree from the municipality’s saw[ii].
In Saudi Arabia, protest is criminalised and people are habituated into mindless-obedience. According to Hatoon Al Fassi, Professor of History at Riyadh’s King Saud University, “….construction work to expand the mosque has already destroyed about two thirds of the sacred mosque’s historic buildings… We have already lost the houses of the Prophet’s companions, as well as smaller mosques around the same mosque that dated back to the earliest years of the Islamic era. And while the house in which the Prophet was born has been transformed into a library, other sites have suffered worse fates: …..the house of Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife and the mother of his children, was destroyed in order to build public toilets”[iii]. Since the Royal Family and the Wahabi hierarchy are behind this cultural massacre, any resistance would be not just treachery but also apostasy.
In Turkey, a localised protest became a national outburst partly as a reaction to a rumoured-plan to introduce a presidential constitution. Mr. Erdogan is in his final term as PM; the new constitution would be a ploy to save his political life. If Turkey is saved from this impending autocracy it will not be thanks to its Opposition, which is as weak and as fragmented as ours, but to the courage of her people and their refusal to become anesthetised by religion, patriotism or some other opiate.
In Sri Lanka, we failed the 18th Amendment test and the Impeachment test. Will we fail the ‘Media-ethics’ test as well?
A key reason for the protests in Turkey and the apathy in Saudi Arabia is the presence of a relatively free media in one country[iv] and the total absence of media freedom in the other. Many Saudis outside Mecca may not even know of what their rulers – with the backing of their religious leaders – are doing to their priceless religio-cultural heritage.
An ignorant populace is an autocrat’s greatest blessing, even more than a filled armoury and a numerous soldiery.
Media Freedom and Public Good
According to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, a free and an unrestrained media promote the public good in several ways, including ‘disseminating knowledge and allowing critical scrutiny’ and ‘giving voice to the neglected and the disadvantaged’’[v]. Prof. Sen uses the case of the Bengali famine to demonstrate this nexus. The Bengali famine happened under British Rule, and in the absence of a democratic government and a free press. It was only after the British editor of The Statesman (Calcutta) published graphic accounts of the famine, that colonial rulers were compelled into instituting relief measures. Prof. Sen points out that no major famine has happened in a functioning democracy with a free press and concludes, “The direct penalties of a famine are borne only by the suffering public and not by the ruling government. The rulers never starve…. What makes a famine such a political disaster for a ruling government is the reach of public reasoning which moves and energises a very large proportion of the general public to protest and shout about the ‘uncaring government’ and try to bring it down”[vi].
A government faced with a critical media and a wide-awake public would be more prone to be responsible and accountable than a government with a submissive media and an anesthetised public.
According to a recent survey (sponsored by the American Chemical Society) “of 12 countries in four continents, cadmium levels in rice grain were the highest in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka… For Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, there was high weekly intake of cadmium from rice, leading to intakes deemed unsafe by international and national regulators”[vii]. Cadmium is a heavy metal which can have a lethal impact on heart, lungs and kidneys and affect brain-development in children. The Lankan participant in the survey, Dr. Mangala de Silva of the University of Ruhuna, blames the cadmium problem on “substandard phosphate fertilisers….”[viii]
Toxic-rice is a greater menace than the halal or Storm Mahasen. Toxic-rice is a real problem and a lethal one. Yet there is no fear, no concern, no public outrage. The silence of the regime is understandable. The issue of toxic-rice, like famines, does not affect the powerful/the rich because organically produced rice is available, at a much higher price. The regime will move in the matter only if forced to do so. If the media – especially the Sinhala media – can be compelled into muteness, there will be no public awareness and no public outcry.
Once the media-ethics proposal is enacted, revelations about toxic-rice can be made illegal. The general public can be lulled into happy ignorance, until the plague metastasises its way from rice-producers to rice-consumers.
According to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, “Misconceptions regarding Buddhists in Sri Lanka are spread worldwide through websites. Now is the time to change those misconceptions which were being spread for the last 30 years”[ix]. Once the ‘media ethics’ are legalised, it will be illegal to report anything about the ongoing attacks on churches, mosques and kovils. No wonder the BBS wants Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to takeover Sinhala-Buddhism: “….Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara thero told a news conference that the Buddha Sasana Ministry was currently performing a poor service in protecting the Buddha Sasanaya…. Gnanasara Thera said it could be recommended that the Defence Secretary should be given the responsibility of the Buddha Sasana since he was a person the BBS trusted”[x].
Those monks who do not come up to the ‘BBS-standards of Buddhism’ can then be white-vanned; and the media which report/comment on such atrocities legally punished.
A citizenry cannot be transformed into subjects without their consent and cooperation. A democracy can be destroyed from outside, without the complicity of its people, but to destroy democracy from within requires the active and passive participation of its citizenry. Vellupillai Pirapaharan did not become transformed from Thambi to Surya Thevan overnight. Such internal transformations need a congenial atmosphere created by citizens, who are willing, individually and collectively, to forego their rights in the name of an abstraction or a mirage, out of disillusionment or fear.
A dying democracy needs a majority who are mesmerised by a fantasy and unruffled by reality.
Like the proverbial crab in the pre-boiling pot.
Are we that people?
More details about the latest situation read http://www.presstv.com/detail/2013/03/17/294011/saudi-regime-razes-holy-sites-in-mecca/
[iv] Despite recent repressive measures including the arrests of a large number of journalists, Turkish media remains vibrantly critical.
[v] The Idea of Justice
[viii] The Sunday Times – 9.6.2013
[x] Daily Mirror (website) – 26.5.2013