By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“It used to be that reading papers – Made you stupid and even crazy
One wrote ‘Bravo! Very good!’ – Another ‘Pfui!’ The truth stayed hazy.
Now you can save your dime – If you read one, you know what’s right,
They say the same thing every time – Brought into line, brought into line.”
A state-endorsed song in Nazi Germany[i]
Karim Nabbach is a fortunate man. He will suffer no ill consequences, even though he has incurred the wrath of Kim Jong Un. Mr. Nabbach, a barber by profession, advertised discounted haircuts in a poster, adorned with a picture of the North Korean leader and titled, ‘Bad Hair Day?’ But Mr. Nabbach is safe. He lives in London. All North Korea can do is to formerly request the British to take “necessary action to stop the provocation”[ii].
Poking fun at their leaders is an everyday-right that citizens of most democratic countries take for granted. But the crime of lèsé-majesté (injured majesty) is far from dead in many parts of the world. Last week the editor-in-chief of the Sinhala daily, Lakbima, was interrogated by the CID. His ‘crime’: injuring the majesty of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s wife. “The newspaper carried a photo on April 7th on page 8 in which the head of the Sewa Vanitha unit of the Defence Ministry Ayoma Rajapaksa was depicted buying goods at the New Year fair of the Civil Defence Department. The caption of the photo was…. ‘They aren’t fake money aren’t they?’”[iii] The newspaper apologised the very next day, but to no avail. Another ‘insuperable line’ no one thought existed had been crossed, with that harmless quip. The editor-in-chief was grilled for three hours by the CID and a statement recorded. The sub-editor, directly responsible for the caption, was dismissed from the job[iv].
Ideally, everyone from fellow editors to the opposition should have been up in arms at this idiotic, extra-legal and unjust Rajapaksa response. In reality nothing much happened. Our collective inertia, as much as the regime’s frenzied overreaction, helped entrench another political precept – Thou shalt not mock the Rajapaksas.
At the 2013 White House Correspondent’s Dinner[v] Barack Obama raised more laughs than the Chief Guest, comedian Conan O’Brien. “These days I look in the mirror and I have to admit I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be,” President Obama quipped at one point. “I’m also hard at work on plans for the Obama library and some have suggested we put it in my birthplace but I’d rather keep it in the United States,” he joked, in a reference to the ‘Birther-issue’[vi]. Mr. O’Brien accused President Obama of continuing to solicit campaign funds, post-election, to feed a secret gambling-habit.
Mr. Obama might be the most powerful man in the world, but he knows that he is going to occupy that position only until 2016. He also has to operate within a host of very real constraints, constitutional, institutional, political and societal. Therefore it would be much harder for him to see himself as a politically immortal superhuman. But even tin-pot despots and would-be despots in less-democratic lands can gaze in the mirror and see not normal men in power for a season, but giants in imperial purple, ruling for life. No wonder they are so allergic to the sort of humour which reminds them of their essential ordinariness.
Roger Owen opines that ‘lifetime presidents’ exist in a ‘mirror-state’ where they see themselves as “omnipotent, indispensable and well loved by a grateful people in whose name they professed to govern”[vii]. And this self-delusion cannot be maintained if people are free to know the quirks of their leaders and to poke fun at them. That is why in non-democratic lands, information and treachery are Siamese Twins and one bout of derisive laughter can become a greater crime than reams of measured criticism.
Last year, a Puswedilla-skit mocking the Commonwealth Summit was banned by the censor board. This was when Commonwealth mania was raging and President Rajapaksa was being hailed as ‘The Great Leader of the Commonwealth’. The skit entitled, ‘The Comon Welthings Summit’ would have been inconsonant with this reverential and celebratory mood. And though the President called the director of the show and promised to resolve the matter, the ban does not seem to have been lifted[viii]. The message is clear – mock the opposition and even ministers; but stay off the First Family.
According to the latest Impunity Index, Sri Lanka, with a rating of 0.443 is the fourth worst country in the world for journalists[ix]. Both the director of Puswedilla and the editor of Lakbima are more fortunate than the staff of the Uthayan, the Jaffna paper under perennial siege. Another one of Uthayan correspondents was beaten up on Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s day[x]. Perhaps in future, Uthayan staff can be arrested and detained indefinitely under the PTA, for having contacts with ‘Tiger Leader’ Gopi – or his innumerable successors.
The Rajapaksa myth of a humanitarian operation with zero-civilian casualties could not have been sustained with a free media. That was why the regime imposed a blanket censorship on war-coverage and vilified as traitors those journalists who talked about human rights violations by the Lankan Forces. This information-blackout enabled the regime to emulate the Tigers and conduct the war in a no-holds-barred manner.
A normal free media is fatally injurious to the Rajapaksa dynastic project as well. The Siblings need to keep economic hopes and political fears alive in the South; both tasks require an ignorant populace and, therefore, an obedient media. From the censoring of critical websites to the banning of Puswedilla, from the buying-out of anti-government newspapers to the grilling of Lakbima editor, we are witnessing a gradual tightening of screws, of closing of spaces.
On the one hand, the likes of Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thero are allowed to spew racist venom in total freedom, while those who oppose such fanatics run the risk of being punished as troublemakers. The regime equates reconciliation with a state of existence where Tamils accept the twin myths of humanitarian operation with zero-civilian casualties and Welfare Villages, welcome de facto military occupation and embrace their second class status. Consequently anyone who refuses to abide by these axioms can be labelled an enemy of reconciliation. So even if anti-hate speech laws are enacted they will be used to silence not the BBS-types but those who speak out against discrimination and injustice.
A notable guest at the Rajapaksa avurudu table in Medamulana this year was the country’s de facto chief justice Mohan Peiris[xi]. That presence symbolised a critical absence: that of at least a partially independent judiciary. In that deadly absence, the Rajapaksas are safe from the fate of Silvio Berlusconi, whose political career was abruptly halted when he was convicted by an Italian court of tax fraud. In the absence of an independent judiciary and a free media, there is nothing much to stand in the way of the Rajapaksas as they violate human rights, abolish basic freedoms and turn a politically vibrant and ideologically pluralist society into the humourless and ignorant monolith of their desire.
[i] Quoted in ‘Dead Funny: Humour in Hitler’s Germany – Rudolf Herzog
[v] The main function of this annual event seems to be to poke fun at the American President to his face Arguably one of the best occasions was when Stephen Colbert, an avid critic of the Bush Presidency, roasted an often bemused looking President George W Bush for 20 minutes.
[vii] The Rise and the Fall of Arab Presidents for Life
[ix] https://www.cpj.org/reports/2014/04/impunity-index-getting-away-with-murder.php (Sri Lanka’s ranking remains constant compared to last year but its rating has increased, indicating movement towards greater impunity.)