By Mohamed Harees –
“Truth has come, and falsehood has perished. Indeed is falsehood, [by nature], ever bound to perish”- Al Quran 17:81
It was on May 23rd 2019, Divaina journalist Hemantha Randhunu wrote an unsubstantiated news item with a sensational headline titled, ‘‘4000 Sinhala Buddhist mothers were sterilized by a ‘Thawheed Jamaat Doctor who performed caesarean operations’”. Today, this story stands exposed as fake news and a racist ruse intending to create hatred towards the Muslim community. The allegations levelled against Dr Shafi Shahabdeen implicated in this case has now been proved to be as much of a big lie as they then seemed on first glance. Even belatedly, he has been cleared of all these false charges and was reinstated, while AG recently informed the Court of Appeal that steps are being taken for the payment of arrears of salary and allowances for the period he was on compulsory leave over these false accusations. Another tragicomedy indeed! But the damage was done. Thus, an aspiring career of a young doctor ended so pathetically, being an innocent victim of scheming of political conspirators hell-bent on bringing a devious family dynasty back to power at any cost. He was summarily arrested, put in jail, tarnished his image beyond repair, and his family life will never be the same.
Sri Lanka has had a storied history of these types of witch hunts. The trial by a racist media with political patronage, based on the aforesaid ‘Divaina’ fake news, in the court of public opinion ensued; but its outcome was a fait accompli, creating a lunacy among a greater section of the population to see a terrorist in every Muslim. Citing the purported sterilisations as justification, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior Buddhist figures, Asigiri Chapter Prelate Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero publicly called for the doctor to be stoned. The allegations levelled against the doctor clearly served to further heighten then prevailing tensions. Because of Shafi’s case, several Muslim doctors who worked in densely populated Sinhala areas couldn’t practise and had to shut down. The story was picked up by local television channels and widely shared on social media. These were also then widely shared in India and elsewhere with racist, anti-Muslim overtones.
This major local Sinhala newspaper in publishing this news too claimed that this Muslim surgeon was a member of a terrorist group linked to the Easter attacks. The report also claimed that the secret sterilisations were performed without the knowledge of the women involved by tubal ligation while they were undergoing caesarean section surgeries. A FB Sinhala post by a Buddhist monk Kottawagama Dhammajothi uploaded May 23, 2019, stated: “Realise the danger now? This is Wahabism. He is a worse terrorist than the terrorist who carried out the bombings.” It called for the doctor to be given “punishments meted out during the era of ancient kings” — a reference to torture. An extremist Hindu group post in India asked , ‘How many Hindus are sterilized here?’
It was clear that Shafi accusations were largely “stage-managed” by the Rajapaksa camp to create a fear psychosis building up on the post-Easter heat, ahead of 2019 Presidential election. Although it was medically absurd, Shafi was arrested nonetheless, on a different trumped up charge planned by powers that be, while this allegations were being investigated. Imagine a citizen being brazenly denied the presumption of innocence, until proven guilty, as the country’s Constitution provides! True! this is not how justice should work; this was the opposite of justice. This was persecution. But, then, he happened to be a targeted Muslim doctor living in the Post Easter Sri Lanka, caught up in the greater scheme of things and in a political conspiracy, to ensure the re-election of the Rajapaksas!
Investigations into the sterilization scare at Kurunegala showed the underlying conspiracies even earlier on, with the discovery that medical administrators colluded with law enforcement officials and even the magistrate to fabricate evidence and alter judicial records.The CID reported to court that the director of the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital, A.M. S. Weerabandara, was fully aware that the sterilisation allegations against a Muslim doctor were untrue. According to the documents submitted, the CID investigation, led by Inspector Adrian Nishantha Silva, interviewed more than 40 employees at the Kurunegala Teaching hospital, including operating room nurses, OBGYN specialists, resident doctors and hospital attendants, who had worked with Shafi. The CID report said that some of the staffers had assisted Shafi in over 500 C-sections.According to the witness testimonies cited in the CID report, no one witnessed Shafi “using his hands or any surgical equipment to damage the fallopian tubes” of any patient on the surgical table. Prof. Hemantha Senanayake, Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, insisted that the absence of an impartial, speedy and transparent investigation could have a negative impact not only on Sri Lanka’s achievements in maternal care and health but create a situation where people would be afraid to have babies delivered in hospital.
According to reports from all of Sri Lanka law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including police, the State Intelligence Service, and the Terrorist Investigation Division, there were no also credible evidence of Shafi having any links to terrorist activity. The document then listed 13 Sri Lankan law enforcement and intelligence agencies, all of which cleared Shafi of terrorist links — Kurunegala Police, Police Special Task Force, State Intelligence Service, Criminal Archives, Terrorist Investigation Division, Western Intelligence Unit, Police Special Bureau, Dambulla Police Station, National Intelligence Bureau, Intelligence units of the army, navy, Airforce. The doctor was also accused of acquiring large number of assets through illegal means, which charge also fizzled out in the end.
Both the journalist and Divaina editor-in-chief, Anura Solomons, later disowned responsibility for its veracity stating that this story was based on police and hospital sources, whom they said could not identify. This was however not the first time Divaina published this type of fake news. It published another fake news article on July 05, 2017 with headline — “An individual who was ousted from six mosques on 17 occasions during the Ramadan season, has been sentenced to death by Pakistani Courts”. Mawbima also echoed another fake news suggesting that Dr Shafi gave Wattalappan to the Sinhala women which sterilized them.
Apart from media culprits, there were many schemers and propagandists too. Referring to this as a ‘Womb War’ more dangerous than Saharan’s terror war,- rogue monks like Rathana, Gnanasara, politicos like Wimal W and (Prof?) Jayasumana, aided by the medical professionals like Padeniya of the GMOA (who observed professional silence) and the hospital’s director, Dr A.M.S. Weerabandara, who led the craftly designed hate campaign against Shafi and the Muslims, in order to convince a gullible electorate. The political overtones came to light as the newspaper article was amplified on the day it was published when SLPP professional Channa Jayasumana, wrote about the allegations of Buddhist women being sterilized without their knowledge in a Facebook post alongside a picture of Shafi – the first time he was publicly linked to the claim. The post, which was shared more than 1,200 times, had a photo of an article in which Shafi said he had performed some 8,000 caesarean sections in his career. The post also highlighted that he had stood for office for a Muslim party.
This reportage led to the Sinhala media creating a media product of a false narrative involving Shafi. Dr. Weerabandara, a dentist by profession, also objected in court earlier to tests being carried out on women who claimed they had been illegally sterilized by Dr. Shafi while delivering their babies through C-section procedures. Divine Providence has it that all the Humpty Dumpty characters who directed this fake ‘Wandha’ news drama, lie shattered with no one to pick up their pieces. But should not these schemers too be brought to justice, along with the rogue media?
According to these media sources, as many as 1000 complaints were initially received. As per a media study, total of 322 articles and 222 claims on the Dr. Shafi case were reported in the press and on primetime news respectively in the first five weeks after the initial article in Divaina. Multiple local television channels picked up and amplified the Divaina report, particularly by Hiru TV, and Derana notorious for their racist coverage. The production of this false narrative has been examined by Media experts through a framework of four elements: the use of pre-existing anti-Muslim narratives; the use of authoritative sources to lend legitimacy to the claims; the use of emotional language and descriptions to inspire grief, fear and anger; and the prominence given to the narrative. The damage caused by the information disorder fell within two interconnected categories of consequences: the prejudicial and the political. These consequences not only weakened occupational and political positions of individuals but can also harmed the position of the entire Muslim community, as they formed the perceived basis for calling for the removal of persons from various posts due to their religious and ethnic affiliations.
This is not the first time individuals have been raked over the coals and lives and reputations ruined by unethical reporting practices. The digital age has meant information sweeps across the country faster than ever, ruining reputation of persons and transmitting fake news at the blink of an eye. According to Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya, former director of Government Information Department, the media must be held accountable for what has happened in the country after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. He said “Although the authorities accused social media of stoking fire of racism, if you study the content, it was the mainstream media that have been stoking the fire from the beginning. Most electronic media as well as leading newspapers were catering to the gallery and to the Sinhala-nationalistic market. There is no point of blaming only the journalists or editors for the irresponsible reporting. There aren’t enough laws and regulations for the media in the country. Laws are available only for the print media, and those are 40 years old. There is no way for readers and viewers in the country to get justice”.
Press Complaints Commission (PCCSL) President Sukumar Rockwood says ‘Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka had a decent code of professional practice for journalists. The trouble is that journalists are not following it properly’. This news can be considered as a one that can lead to increase in social tension and drive wedges between communities in an already segregated society. Therefore, Free Media Movement suggested that the Editors’ Guild initiate an impartial investigation into this issue for the sake of a media tradition with social responsibility”. However , no such inquiries happened. An Independent Regulatory Commission which can play a huge role in creating a responsible, accountable media culture in a society has been suggested. Despite the far-reaching consequences of this case of information disorder, there was no coordinated official government response. The only official response was by the PCCSL. This too did not result in rectifying the damage caused and holding the media to ensure nonrecurrence. The Media activists also called for an independent regulator and proper inquiry by Editors’ Guild into this news story that took Kurunegala and the country by storm
Power through racism has been a clear Rajapakse project, given wings by their loyal media outlets, in collaboration with their political strategists/agents. Shafi’s case aptly shows how both politicians and media using canards and fake stories can play into a real fear of Muslims in the minds of others. Dr. Shafi has been clearly a victim of irresponsible media riding a wave of rampant Islamophobia, egged on by vicious politicians. As the fourth pillar of democracy along with Judiciary, Executive and Legislature, media of today has an all-embracing role to act against injustice, oppression, misdeeds and partiality in our society. It is high time that the media adheres to the above journalistic ethics and impartiality, and does not advocate racism and racial unrest among communities.
There is growing political instrumentalisation and banalisation of racism/ Islamophobia, characterised by the growing influence of racist political platforms of the extreme right in the political programmes of even democratic parties like SLPP; the intellectual legitimisation of racism by intellectuals, scholars and the media; and the increase of violent manifestations of those evils, as witnessed in this Shafi saga. In this context, it is important the public activism play a decisive role to hold the governments and rogue medias to account and also challenge and punish them judicially too. Above all, the State and all its institutions bear a large share in the responsibility to fight racism and intolerance. But the responsibility of the State goes beyond providing a legal basis within which private persons, the media and civil society operate. After all, racism exists in the minds and hearts of people. Change of attitude and social transformation will happen only if they can open their minds and hearts through education and consciousness. A repeat of a Shafi saga should be avoided at all costs!