By Mohamed Harees –
The Tamil mainstream newspapers have since of late joined the anti-Muslim hate bandwagon too. On 16th June , the popular Tamil newspaper Virakesari splashed a sensational news front page headline which read: Gnanasara Thero’s arrest – a Ramazan Eid Bonanza (for the Muslims) indirectly connecting his jail sentence to the rogue Thero’s anti Muslim hate campaign. In actual fact, this headline was further from the truth and this imputation smacked of promoting renewed anti Muslim feelings and sentiments in a country besieged by this cancer in the Post War period. It was ironically in April 2018 that another Tamil newspaper Thinakural wrote in bold headlines again on their front page thus: ‘Muslim racism emerges against the Eastern Tamils’, which too was both false and misleading, in the backdrop of the hijab issue in the Trinco school, making the victims look as perpetrators. These alarming developments, viewed in the backdrop of the damage Siva Senai has been inflicting in the N-E areas by inciting the Tamil people against their brethren in language, shows both insidious political and Islamophobic dimensions with tentacles extending even beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. How effective will the Press Complaints Council of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) be to deal with the blatant violations by these offending media outlets promoting hatred will be left to be seen!
The rogue monk, widely considered as a disgrace to the true Buddhist teachings was only jailed for abusive behaviour against a sitting judge, contempt of court, charges of causing criminal harassment and intimidation and fear under the Penal code ,and for abusing and threatening Ms. Sandya Ekneliyagoda. The judge delivered a sentence of 6 months R.I. each on the first and second charges , to be served concurrently in six months , in addition to a fine. He wasn’t jailed seriously for offences relating to many charges of insult against Islam and the culture of the Muslims. Contrastingly, the law was in fact bent for him and was comically was acquitted few times within a space of a day. What Ven Gnanassara Thero and his radical outfit BBS did along with the sister hate groups during the former racism-prone MR regime was well known. His anti- Muslim antics however extended well beyond that regime, into this so-called Yahapalana times too. He liberally continued to insult the religion and the culture of the Sri Lankan Muslims with impunity with not much fear or sanction from the law enforcement authorities Thus, the process of justice which worked as it should because of the courage of a sitting judge of a smaller court and a brave female activist Sandya, totally fell apart or turned a blind eye when he has been wreaking havoc on the inter communal harmony through his well-orchestrated anti-Muslim hate campaign. The judge must be admired for trying to reform a most incorrigible robed monk when politicians were encouraging his rowdy conduct to achieve their selfish agendas , and temples too could not save him from the road to perdition. But, so much for the process of justice when anti-Muslim hate come to be punished, which shows the fallacy of equal treatment of Muslims in Sri Lanka !
It has thus now become clear that Islamophobia is not just confined to Sinhala Buddhist hate groups; rather there are proven links to their extremist cousins in the Tamil community too- the Shiv Senai. There was the hijab issue in a Trincomalee Tamil school instigated by these hate elements and some disgruntled local Tamil politicians. Then, the SS group gave life to another forgotten area of conflict –Cattle slaughter and call for a beef ban in the North, with the leader of the groups referring to Muslims indirectly as aliens who should leave the Island if they cannot fall in line with the religious beliefs of the majority- Buddhists and Hindus; a reference which shows sinister plans to open another can of worms in a land which suffered a lot from racial and religious based conflicts. There was suspected Indian RAW connection to the resurgence of anti-Muslim sentiments in Tamil dominated areas after the dreaded Tiger rule ,which raises further concern. How many joint ventures are yet to take fruit between Sinhala Buddhist and Hindi anti-Muslim extreme groups are everyone’s guess!
These alarming developments emerging in the predominantly Tamil North and the Eastern Sri Lanka where significant Tamil population live, barely few months after the infamous Digana anti-Muslim violence which left the Muslim community to relive the horrors of Aluthgama under a government which was voted in to reign in the offenders which included Gnanasara Thero as well and to punish them, indeed send chills upto the spine of a battered community because of another emerging war- religiously instigated ‘war’. Already social media has been a flurry of activity promoting racial and religious hatred specially against the Muslims. There were also some sections of the Sinhala Media too which have been quite liberal in promoting Islamophobia. Now that the mainstream Tamil newspapers too have joined in, the implications are just quite alarming to say the least. Despite these dangerous developments, with the alarm bells being sounded even by the Tamil politicians themselves about Shiva Sevai, the government seems to be still adopting a ‘no hear; no see’ policy. The Muslim political leadership is of course imbecile and impotent as it always has been, fending their own nests and guarding their ‘golden’ eggs. Thus, Muslims are rightly referred in this context as an orphaned community or Nobody’s people.
Hate speech presents a major challenge to today’s journalism. Socially conscious journalists have been rightly alarmed at how rapidly hate-filled messages seep into, and often overwhelm, comment on the internet. Less talked about is how journalists’ own professional procedures — including how news is defined — may amplify the voices of hate propagandists. Then there are the media outlets that purvey intolerance, serving as ideological spokesmen and cheerleaders for forces of hate, from Xenophobics, Islamophobics to religious extremists. Even free speech advocates agree that hate speech requires special handling, especially when levelled against minorities too weak to counter it in the marketplace of ideas. However, discussions on this subject often lose focus: definitions get fuzzy and we find legitimate concerns being translated into unwarranted censorship.
To label something otherwise inoffensive as “hate speech” and use it as an excuse for silencing criticism of dominant values and institutions has understandably bred cynicism among many journalists. As a defensive reaction, they retreat behind their legal right to freedom of expression. Yet, legal limits should not determine the boundaries of professional conduct. Many principles that journalists live by, such as protecting confidentiality, are not imposed by law, and indeed, may be in conflict with the law, but are nonetheless voluntarily adopted as a matter of ethics. Similarly, journalists need to develop their ethical capacities to respond to the real risk of serious harm being promoted. Ethical standards pertaining to hate speech remain a work in progress. There are a number of worrisome trends that deserve closer scrutiny and deliberation. In the broader context of Post- war developments in Sri Lanka, many Muslims at the receiving end, however, maintain that such denigration of their religion and culture is part of a broad ideological assault that makes it harder for them to live as equals in their society. It is sad that politicians had already “polarised” the country and “legitimised hate” using hate groups as weapons and the Media has been playing a complimentary role.
One of the most pernicious and under-discussed aspects of hate speech is that potent hate campaigns are not limited to racist rants or banners. They instead involve a sophisticated effort across a networked movement including the Media outlets as well. Extreme expression is only part of its arsenal and not necessarily the most effective weapon. Psychologists and sociologists tell us that messages are more persuasive when they enter minds when their guard is down. Journalists need to be vigilant not only against obviously toxic speech, but also hate propaganda couched in pseudoscientific terms and reasonable discourse. Sensationalising news and adding racist/ hate flavour to their news stories has sadly become more common for commercial purposes.
Take for example in UK; the role of the media in the rise of hate crime in the UK has been unequivocal. For too long now the right-wing tabloid press in the UK has vilified minorities and vulnerable groups. This vilification is by no means a new phenomenon and has long existed in British Media. Experts have been warning for some time that antagonistic media coverage has been fuelling an increase in anti-Muslim and Islamophobic hate speech and crime. Many newspapers, broadcasters and other media outlets have therefore failed to rise to the challenge of fighting prejudice and bigotry; Instead of raising awareness and challenging ignorance, they stoke the fires of intolerance and racism.
Journalists therefore need to navigate with care around racism and extremism to avoid stirring up intolerance, and to report fairly the mosaic of languages, religion, cultures and different historical perspectives that shape modern society. As Roberto Natale, the President of National Federation of Italian Journalists (FNSI) said “Journalists have a duty to avoid fanning the flames of racial hatred. We do not ask them to be ‘militant’ but simply to do their job and respect the truth as they see it and always within the law that guides our profession’.A number of journalists’ unions and media, including public broadcasters in the West , have established specialist working groups and guidelines committed to combating racism that go beyond the good intentions of ethical declarations. At the same time national Press Councils have adopted codes which challenge intolerance and have taken up complaints from members of the public over racism in media, with varying results. Some have seemed to interpret their codes in the narrowest possible terms and have refused to find against newspapers even where there appears to be a strong prima facie case. Ethical codes will not solve all the problems of intolerance in media, but they help journalists to take responsibility and they encourage journalists to act according to their conscience.
One conclusion of all this talk, reinforced again and again, is the need to campaign vigorously to recruit more people from different ethnic and cultural groups into journalism. To be effective, journalism must be inclusive, accountable and a reflection of the whole community.It is time now for media and regulatory bodies, including ICCSL with more legal teeth , to take significant steps to curb the racist, and anti-Muslim rhetoric that plagues factions of the media these days as a fad more due to demand and supply compulsions . Journalism should put populist and dangerous ideas under proper scrutiny. Media need standards for reporting which ensure people get the information they need, without lashings of bias and prejudice. Like all the other skills of journalism, it takes training, time and effort to become good at applying ethical codes which direct thinking and permit conscious decision-making, without allowing the government in over regulating the media industry. Yes! Public awareness should be raised to keep the media industry on their toes by complaining to the regulators, organizing peaceful protests and even going to courts against offending rogue newspapers when they carry misleading and/or racist/religiously offensive news-items or violate media ethics. Public activism is a must to ensure Media freedom is in the public interests.