By Emil van der Poorten –
The post-Rajapaksa bravery of some political commentators and my personal experience
I recently had, from an old friend in Australia, an email suggesting that I could begin writing quite freely to the media again because I had been tempting fate while the Rajapaksas were ruling the roost by writing critically of their government and that this threat was now behind us. The suggestion was that, ultimately, I had succumbed to pressure from my friends and family and gone silent and I should now take up cudgels again.
I found this quite interesting, not to say bemusing, in the context of what has really been the case for Sri Lankans with journalistic pretensions both before and after the removal (however temporary) of the Rajapaksa monstrosity from the body politic.
Many of those seemingly exhorting me to “again” begin writing to the mainline English language press, seemed totally unaware that newspapers in that category – with the exception of the Sunday Island, headed up by one of the few principled journalists in the country – had “shunned” me for the longest time for coming across as “anti-Rajapaksa” and, for that reason, likely to be a stain on their “national loyalty” escutcheon. Their need to demonstrate overall fealty to our Ultimate Leader while pretending at ethical objectivity in journalism was the name of the game. Long before I began a four-year association with the Sunday Leader, after the death of Lasantha Wickrematunge, and until Frederica Jansz was driven into exile, I had contributed columns on a regular basis to several English language newspapers. In fact, the first of these was Lakbimanews, then edited by the indescribable (more appropriate terms come to mind, but…) Rajpal Abeynayake. That association ended when he insisted on sending me a cheque made out to the pseudonym that I used for those columns which bore no resemblance to that carried by anyone in Sri Lanka, leave alone the first and last names to which I answered! Given the established character of Mr. Abeynayake, I think I need hardly suggest the motivation for this irrational behavior.
I used to write, at their invitation, a column with a rural slant to a part of the Sunday Times under the pseudonym “Haris Tumpane.” However, that contribution was “tapered off” and disappeared because I was told that advertising revenues were paramount and rural political commentary had to make way for it when circumstances so dictated. My take on this was somewhat different and borne out by the response I got when, after what I thought was a long enough time, I made inquiries about the column being reinstated. The answer was that I “couldn’t be touched with a barge pole!” To me this constituted proof, yet again, if proof be needed, of the Wijeya Newspapers self-censorship which I have always found more reprehensible than the pandering that obviously pro-government newspapers are guilty of. Why? Because jackals in sheep’s clothing are more destructive than the undisguised variety! Not far removed from all of this was the fact that, when I inquired about a quite-innocuous Letter to the Editor from me not being published in the Daily Mirror, I was told that I had to be out of my mind to believe that a paper in that group would publish ANYTHING critical of what the late S.L.Gunasekera had written in their pages! The reason? The late Mr. G was the newspaper’s lawyer! Journalistic ethics and independence, anyone?
As for the end of the road with the Sunday Leader, that’s a different story. While I had my differences with Frederica Jansz and a few telephone donnybrooks to go with them, I also found her to be absolutely honest. When Asanga Seneviratne’s participation in the Sunday Leader was imminent, I had a raised-voices discussion with Frederica on the subject. Suffice it to say that subsequent events proved her to have been trusting to the point of gross naivety and yours truly right in his assessment of who and what Asanga Seneviratne was and what he represented. The very week that Mr. S took over, my column was dropped with Mr. S responding to a query from, I believe, Colombo Telegraph, that it “wasn’t up to standard” or something to that effect, this coming from a man whose claim to fame in journalism (and literacy) was being the rugby coach of the Heir to the Throne! This was followed by a cockamamie story to Colombo Telegraph, about there being some kind of “mix up” that had resulted in my column being “missed.”
In any event, despite the sweetest of conversations with Frederica’s successor, I was “jacked around” and ultimately, with the Sunday Leader still owing me payment for several columns, I threw my hand in.
A footnote here would not be out of place. The grapevine had it that Tisaranee Gunasekara and I were going to be kept on for about six months after Frederica was turfed to create the illusion that the Sunday Leader was politically independent. Tisaranee wrote just one column before the absolutely unethical behavior of Frederica Jansz’s successor compelled her to stop writing for the Sunday Leader. What followed beggars description and would best be spoken to by TG. However, suffice it to say that it indicated how low the Sunday Leader and those now at its helm could stoop.
Let me make now make a couple of observations that should be only too obvious to anyone reading Colombo Telegraph.
The first is that simply removing the Rajapaksa Dictatorship from the equation will not restore media freedom as long as the likes of Wijeya Newspapers is allowed to play its sly and unprincipled games. The matter of media freedom and, through it, freedom of information for an entire nation needs to be examined more closely and, if necessary, a system, however complex, be put in place to ensure that this cornerstone of democracy is restored and maintained. Simply letting people write is hardly enough when, for the most unprincipled of reasons, what they have to say is dictated by the whims of those who consistently avoid what they perceive as “inconvenient truths.” I was fortunate in that I have never been a professional journalist dependent on my computer keyboard to feed my family. Professional journalists do not enjoy this luxury and thus can be pressured by “the media reality” to bend to the will of those who sign their pay cheques. Talking about “media freedom” in such a context is simply empty rhetoric until such time as law and regulations are put in place to ensure that freedom.
The next matter I’d like to address before closing is that of the blocking of websites by Internet Service Providers such as Sri Lanka Telecom and Dialog. Simply put, there needs to be swift punitive action taken against those individuals who carried out the patently illegal orders of the Rajapaksa Regime. It should be easy enough to find out who signed the memos which resulted in a blackout of dissenting voices, after which, they should be prosecuted and punished as the law provides, for this contravention of the basic democratic rights of every Sri Lankan to information. Nothing less will suffice and this needs to be done without delay.
From a situation where it was a declining number of the “old faithful” (inclusive of the Sycophants Brigade of Dayan Jayatilleka, Malinda Seneviratne, H.L.D. Mahindapala and Rajiva Wijesinha) that chose to write to Colombo Telegraph, its columns have suddenly blossomed in a veritable Sri Lankan spring of writers critical of the Rajapaksa Regime! One doesn’t have to be a Sri Lankan Sherlock Holmes to ascertain why there has been this sea change. It is now safe, or seemingly so, to write critically of the MaRa bunch and its monumental criminalities! All fine and good except that these people who have suddenly grown backbones are quite capable of having that essential part of their anatomies achieve a jelly-like consistency once again if faced with anything resembling threat and repression. Oh well, one should be thankful for small mercies, though it is certainly essential to bookmark events of this nature for future reference!
Hitherto, with the exception of a few males such as Kumar David, the ranks of the brave in Sri Lankan English-language journalism have been populated exclusively by those of the feminine gender. I would suggest that, if the Sirisena government ends up in opposition, there could well be a return to that status quo and Colombo Telegraph should prepare for that eventuality returning to haunt us once again because our “saviours” will, once again, disappear into the woodwork from which they emerged only when President Sirisena was elected!