By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave” – Frederick Douglass (Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass)
The Stono Rebellion of 1739 was the largest slave uprising in pre-Independent America. Many Southern states responded to this unexpected freedom-struggle with the Negro Act which imposed severe restrictions on slaves, including an education-ban. Knowledge, the slave-states realised, was inconsistent with mindless submission.
Today’s power-wielders are often beset by similar cares. The need to keep constituencies in pliable ignorance is not limited to governments. Religions tried/try to appear infallible through knowledge/information control. So do corporate-giants; a case-in-point is the unsuccessful attempt by ‘Dole’ to legally-restrict the documentary, ‘BANANAS!*[i], which depicted the connection between Dole’s use of pesticides and growing sterility among banana-plantation workers in Nicaragua[ii].
Thought control is impossible without information control. If people know, it is hard to keep them in thrall to mirages.
A ruler’s dependency on information control grows as the gap between rhetoric and reality widens. Attempts to hem and guide information flows become pivotal in places where lack of transparency is essential to the maintenance of societal-consent.
This month, the Censor Board banned the latest instalment of the popular satire, ‘Puswedilla’ – ‘The Common Welthings Summit’. Three days later the President reportedly called the playwright/director, Feroze Kamardeen, and promised to sort things out[iii]. The unbanning is yet to happen, though the President indubitably can get it done with one call. Is the banning – and the delay in unbanning – aimed at sending the message that satire will be permitted only so long as its primary target is the Opposition?
In absolute monarchies lèse majesté (offending the dignity of a ruler) was/is a punishable crime. There is nothing like humour to reduce these self-proclaimed divinities to ordinary level, and make their subjective people see the common clay beneath the dazzling gilt. Plus, President Rajapaksa is unsparing in his intolerance. He once condemned a song which mocked the rulers as ‘unpatriotic’ and proclaimed that “songs disgracing the country could help those who want to divide the motherland”[iv]. An astrologer was arrested for making an ‘unacceptable’ political-prediction. A leader with such a gossamer-thin skin is unlikely to be happy about a skit which mocks a matter dear to him. After all, inescapable billboards across Colombo hail the President as the ‘Great Leader of the Commonwealth’!
According to the CPA opinion poll, most Lankans want to know how they are being governed. 72.9% of Lankans (72.4% of Sinhalese) believe that ‘news media should constantly investigate and report on corruption and mistakes by the government’[v]. Only a miniscule minority of 7% (6.7% of Sinhalese) think that ‘too much reporting on negative events like corruption harms the country’.
Despite this desire for knowledge, most Lankans display worrying levels of ignorance about matters of national significance. According to the survey, 79% of Lankans (82.2% of Sinhalese) think that Sinhala is the only national language. A majority has not even heard of the LLRC.
Most Lankans are probably unaware of the Colombo Night Races; and that closing down public roads and spending state resources (including the labour of the soldiery) on an event organised by a private company is illegal. Most Lankans are probably unaware that the rulers are wasting national wealth on private purposes. Most Lankans are probably unaware that their worsening economic woes are partly sourced in the spending priorities of their rulers.
Knowledge is the enemy of uninformed, thoughtless consent. The Rajapaksas would not want Lankans to discover the irresolvable contradiction between Familial Rule and popular wellbeing.
According to the CPA survey, most Lankans have not heard of the illegal impeachment of the Chief Justice. But of those who are aware of the impeachment, a majority believe it is unfair. Clearly knowledge of reality can prevent people from remaining prisoners of illusions.
Lankans do not equate dissension with treachery; 59.6% think that they should do something if they are not satisfied with the government. And increasing numbers of people are likely to become dissatisfied with the government, if they know how Familial Rule is imperilling our common future.
Little wonder then the Rajapaksas are hell-bent on keeping Lankans ignorant about the crimes, misdeeds and incompetencies of familial rule.
The regime is implacably opposed to the Freedom of Information Act and desires the reintroduction of criminal defamation laws; recently, Sajin de Vass Gunewardana, Presidential-favourite and the Monitoring MP for the Ministry of External Affairs, argued that criminal defamation law is necessary “to prevent heads of media organisations from acting like ‘underworld thugs’”[vi]. Only the fear of international reaction (in the context of the Geneva monitoring) compelled the regime to set aside plans to enact a punitively restrictive Media Ethics Law.
The Rajapaksas combine threats with persuasions to dissuade media in general and Sinhala language media in particular from carrying information which casts the First Family in a less-than-glorious light. The murder of Lasantha Wickremetunga still haunts the Lankan media; the fear generated by that broad-daylight assassination is being kept alive by the continued-impunity of the perpetrators.
Internet is under constant threat. Recalcitrant websites are banned directly (Lanka News Web, Lanka E News, Sri Lanka Guardian) or indirectly (Colombo Telegraph, Sri Lanka Mirror).
The regime, for obvious reasons, prefers to corrupt/co-opt rather than kill/abduct. The Media Minister revealed that 91 duty-free car permits and 496 laptops have been given to journalists[vii]. This Rajapaksa concoction of threats and blandishments has largely succeeded in getting the media to perform the task which once required Competent Authorities.
The end result is a state of lackadaisical conformity in which (as Gordon Levy said about Israel), “Soldiers, journalists and news-consumers automatically refrain from asking questions”[viii].
Book-banning “is more than the denial of a constitutional right; it establishes an ethic, a system of moral do’s and don’ts”[ix]. So it is with information-control. During and after Eelam War IV, ‘patriotism’ was used to maintain the myths of ‘Humanitarian Operation with Zero-Civilian-Casualties’ and ‘Welfare Villages’. Without the media’s unwillingness to appear ‘unpatriotic’, the regime may not have succeeded so well in hiding the Northern reality from the South.
With time, the task of damming flows of information is becoming thornier. The regime continues to use the patriotic card, but when the injustices happen in the South and the victims are Sinhala-Buddhists, information-control becomes harder, as the regime found out post-Weliweriya.
Consequently, the regime is trying out new methods to prevent the unravelling of Southern-consent. For instance, prejudices latent in the middle/upper classes are being used to ensure the still-birth of any societal sympathy for Colombo’s poor rendered homeless by the Rajapaksa efforts to turn the city into the exclusive preserve of the rich and the powerful. The argument of convenience was used to justify the eviction of pavement hawkers, even though the measure destroyed an important segment of the informal economy which provided gainful employment to many. Ethno-religious fires are being lit periodically to prevent that moderate coalition of the majority and the minorities which alone can imperil the regime.
Without loosening the Rajapaksa-grip on information flows, Lankan mind cannot be freed from fear, apathy, ‘narrow domestic walls’[x] and the ‘dead habit’ of mindless-submission.
[ii] The Dole Company’s law suit against the movie and threats of further legal actions made sponsors pull out, making it impossible for the movie to compete in the Los Angelis Film Festival. In 2010, a Los Angelis Court ruled in favour of the movie and the filmmakers were awarded nearly $200,000 in fees and costs – http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202475486486&slreturn=20131118195924
[iv] Daily Mirror – 3.5.2011
[v] Democracy in Post-War Sri Lanka 2013 – http://www.cpalanka.org/top-line-survey-results-democracy-in-post-war-sri-lanka/
[viii] Haaretz – 6.7.2009
[ix] Book Banning in America: Who Hates Books – And Why – William Noble
[x] Rabindranath Tagore – Gitanjali