When François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), commonly known as Voltaire, one of the most influential French Enlightenment thinkers, peremptorily asserted that “I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death, your right to say it”, he may himself not have realized the great historical impact that this statement would have had, informing much of contemporary thought on freedom of speech and expression.
Employing crude tactics against dissenters
Particularly for those of us in countries where civil liberties are ruthlessly subverted by dictators masquerading as benevolent governors, this ringing assertion is a cruel irony. For too long we have had a vulgarly cacophonous state media and strategically located private media hatchet men and women demonizing dissenting voices as ‘Tiger’ supporters or as those living off the ill-gotten gains of the Tamil Tiger diaspora. Predictably when directed against dissenters of the female gender, such strikes have been cruder, more personalized and unashamedly sexist.
The fact that this maliciousness had little accurate foundation or that it violated the most basic norms of decent journalism was of no matter to these attackers. Indeed it is a peculiar irony that, even as these propagandists swung into action, they themselves were (on the other hand) the beneficiaries of the most shameful perks and privileges awarded to them by their political benefactors.
Portraying a nation of semi-literates
True enough, before long, we descended from farce to ludicrous comedy as academics, judges and even religious leaders including leading Buddhist prelates, were labeled as traitors. Yet, the damaging impact of this on the national psyche should not be underestimated. Sri Lanka began increasingly to be perceived regionally and internationally as a nation of semi-literate caricatures trapped within a racist, chauvinist and zenophobic consciousness that reveled in parading its asininity in public, even though this was not true of the vast majority of decent ordinary Sri Lankans.
So those Sinhalese ultra-nationalists, (to abstain from more pejorative formulations), who cheered the regime on when it targeted civilians during the conflict and who were so arrogant enough, at one point, to boast that they brought the Rajapaksas to power and will henceforth function as the ‘legitimate opposition’ to the government, must surely now understand the monumentally pathetic character of their claims.
Remarkably pronounced government ire
Certainly, these vulgar propaganda attacks fell far short of their targets in the main. As past experience should have indicated if this government was a bit more strategic (which, alas, it is most assuredly not), the critique only becomes emboldened, fiercer and far more intense when such methods are employed. We saw this well enough in the crisply beautiful response of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay who was similarly attacked with references to her ethnic origin and her gender, not to mention a marriage proposal extended to her by a ministerial buffoon who should be more appropriately tasked with the subject of drainage if at all.
Sunila Abeysekera, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior human rights defenders who passed away this week, was also among those so relentlessly demonized. Perhaps she was perceived as being more dangerous than most as her identity transcended the usual Colombo glitterati frivolities and pervaded Sinhalese music, song, film and literary streams. Perhaps it was also because when speaking of the loss and lament of the Tamil people, her voice resonated more as she had unimpeachable credentials in speaking out against the tyranny and murder practiced against the Sinhala ‘disappeared’ during the eighties, in the forefront of the movement of ‘mothers of the disappeared’ in the South.
Or perhaps it was more galling that she was a woman doing in a uniquely articulate way what few men dared to do or indeed had the capacity. Regardless of what the motives were, there was little doubt that the ire of this administration was remarkably pronounced against her.
Futility of the democratic ideal
Meanwhile, the inherent limitations that Sunila ascribed to the position of the law in societies riven by conflict was always a matter of some spirited dispute for those of us trained to think that the law was the foundation of society, in conflict or otherwise. These were provocative debates, little seen now in the despairingly silent states that we have become accustomed to.
Yet this profound cynicism on her part did not impede her, for example, from challenging the 1998/1999 censorship regulations imposed by the Kumaranatunga government. Bearing out her lack of expectations rather aptly in retrospect, the Court refused to intervene on the basis of the perceived arbitrariness of the regulations alone, while citing some hundred and sixteen authorities in a fifty-page judgment (2000, (1) SLR, 314). Several months later, when factual instances were evidenced of the arbitrary implementation of a succeeding and even more draconian censorship regulation in cases brought by the mainstream media, the same Court did intervene, ordering the government to withdraw it. No doubt such judicial advances would be unheard of today.
This was a voice that refused to be silenced by crude slander. It was a voice that would leave Sri Lanka poorer by its absence. In the final reckoning, as Sri Lankan democracy collapses upon itself in a sad negation of core values of constitutionalism, multi-party rule and rights protections and as stubbornly contrary voices fade away, we can only ruminate on the futility of the democratic ideal that was once aimed at despite formidable odds.