By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“The answer to bad speech his nearly always better speech and those who argue otherwise rarely create countries worth living in” Nick Cohen (Standpoint – 14.7.2012)
The Rajapaksa government is going hell for leather not against child rapists or murderers.
The Rajapaksa government is going hell for leather against journalists.
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s indefensibly venomous outburst at the Sunday Leader Editor Frederica Jansz is symbolic and symbiotic of the Ruling Sibling’s attitude to freedom of expression. His choice of words reflects contempt and fear, hatred and absolute visceral intolerance.
When a very powerful man is also a very angry man it is an extremely incendiary combination. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who has earned for himself a reputation for immoderation, has the power to translate his violent words into violent deeds, and to do so with total impunity.
For physical violence to do its job effectively, the soil must be tilled with words, and the victim covered with a shroud of hostility. Verbal violence is the precursor, accompanist and justifier of physical violence in many spheres, from the domestic and personal to the national and political.
Leaders set trends; they can upend societal values in a matter of years, especially when they use the deadly weapons of race and religion. Like the parrots in the Jathaka Tale, people often follow their leaders, down good paths, and bad.
Abdus Salam, the co-discoverer of the Standard Model of particle physics, was a Pakistani national hero and the Chief Scientific Advisor to the President. All that changed when the Pakistani parliament amended the Constitution to declare all members of Ahmadi sect non-Muslims. Dr. Salam was an Ahmadi; according to fellow physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, thanks to the new law and the resultant sea-change in the public psyche, Abdus Salam “went from someone who was revered in Pakistan, a national celebrity to someone who could not set foot in Pakistan” (AP – 9.7.2012).
By the time he became the first Muslim and the only Pakistani to win a Nobel Price in 1979, he had become a figure of hate for most of his countrymen. Today his name and his groundbreaking achievements are almost forgotten in his land of birth.
Values change with times and tides. So do public perceptions.
The Rajapaksas need to create a new system of values, a new commonsense commensurate with their dynastic project. Vilifying opponents and demonising critics is an important component of that agenda.
Politicians, like most human beings, do not like to be criticised. But in a democracy, politicians learn to put up with it, because freedom of expression is a sine qua non for a democracy to be a democracy.
The Rajapaksas want Sri Lanka to be a democracy in name only. Suffocating freedom of expression is a vital, indispensable component of that larger anti-democratic drive.
The latest measure in the Rajapaksa campaign to kill freedom of expression is the imposition of a crippling registration fee of Rs.100,000/- and an even more debilitating annual fee of Rs.50,000/- on all news websites. The Press Council Act is to be amended to facilitate this exorbitant tax.
Given the host of problems besetting the country, one would have thought the rulers would have bigger priorities than chasing after journalists amending the Press Council Act. The epidemic of child rape, for instance, demands a change in existing laws, aimed at closing all loopholes, ensuring speedy and fair trials and mandating maximum possible punishment.
An incident which happened last week highlighted, yet again, the absolute and urgent need to change legislation on child rape/abuse.
On 12th July, a soldier attached to the Ambepussa army camp was arrested for child molestation. The child he abused was just six years old and was playing near her home. What is worryingly pertinent is not just the extremely young age of the victim, but also the fact the suspect in this horrendous crime was a repeat offender: “Investigations had revealed that the soldier had molested another girl in 2010 and there was also a pending case against him at another court” (Colombo Gazette – 13.7.2012).
So the soldier was arrested and charged for child rape but was given bail, as per the law. And he returned to his job and was allowed to wear his uniform and carry his weapon, as per the law. Just two years later, he repeated his crime. Had he not been given bail, or at least not allowed to return to his job, that six year old child could have been saved.
Given the loopholes in our child abuse laws, what guarantee is there that the Chairman of the Akuressa Pradesheeya Sabha and the member of the Tangalle Pradesheeya Sabha will not get bail at some point of time? Since neither man has been suspended from SLFP membership, once given bail, both will return to being powerful leaders in their localities. What guarantee is there that they will not use their power, position and money to threaten witnesses and even the victims, or to prey on other defenceless children?
What guarantee do we have that they will not escape justice just as parliamentarian Duminda Silva did? Mr. Silva was charged with child rape but when he changed his party, the AG withdrew the charge, citing lack of evidence. What guarantee do we have that the child rape suspects of Akuressa and Tangalle will not be accorded the same escape routes by the political leadership?
That is why existing laws have to be amended, to prevent those accused of child rape from getting out on bail, and using their political, monetary or physical strength to subvert the course of justice or to destroy the life of another child. That is why the public, informed by the media, must remain vigilant.
As far as the regime is concerned, highlighting child rape cases by the media is as bad as child rape – if not worse. Such reporting contradicts the Rajapaksa attempts to portray Sri Lanka as a hub of everything great and wonderful, a moral-ethical paradise, a land in which everyone is free, safe and happy.
The Rajapaksa method of preventing crime is to prevent the reportage of crime. If the people do not know what is happening in the country, it is easy for the Ruling Siblings to lie and cheat and dissemble. Once the media is restrained form reporting bad news, the country can wallow in illusions of safety and wellbeing.
The Rajapaksas commenced their assault against freedom of expression under cover of the Fourth Eelam War. A blanket censorship was imposed during the last half of the war to prevent the dissemination of any news contradicting the regime’s colossal myth of a humanitarian offensive with zero civilian casualties. Tamil Net became the first website to be placed on the Rajapaksa’s Index of the Forbidden Media.
These anti-democratic measures were justified as patriotic necessities.
Journalists were attacked for being critical of the war, for exposing the wrongs of the military. Some were killed and others harassed, jailed or assaulted.
Still, the hopeful belief that these excesses were war-time exigencies which will end once peace dawns persisted.
Once peace dawned, the Rajapaksas, instead of relaxing, redoubled their efforts at muzzling the media. Post-war there was much to hide, and newer myths to sustain. Such as the incarceration of 300,000 civilian Tamils in barbed wire camps masquerading as ‘welfare villages’.
Addressing Lankan diplomats recently, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa described these camps as havens of safety and plenty, with “proper roads, semi-permanent shelters, learning centres, parks, IT centres, child and women development centres, etc., to care for all the needs of the IDPs.
“Each Welfare Village was divided into blocks of shelters. The shelters were provided with electricity, and each block had separate kitchens, toilets, bathing areas and child friendly spaces. Special priority was given for the public areas and recreational activities within the centres. Provision of water exceeded the standards adopted by the World Health Organisation, and the sanitation facilitates were also kept to a reasonable standard…. Basic rations were issued free of charge….. Cooperative outlets and markets were established, and the IDPs too soon started individual businesses within the Villages…. Extensive healthcare facilities and adequate medical supplies were provided in the Welfare Villages…. Each Welfare Village had a Primary Health Care Centre and a well equipped Referral Hospital….. Special facilities for psychiatric care, including support for individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, were provided within the Welfare Villages. Psychosocial support, including counselling programmes, was provided. Many efforts were taken to promote religious, spiritual and cultural activities, and places of worship such as Kovils, Churches and Mosques were established… ‘Happiness Centres’ were established for children, and various activities including art, music, drama, yoga and sports were conducted….” (dbsjeyaraj.com).
What is North Korea to this? That touch about ‘Happiness Centres’ would make the Kims dead and alive go green with envy!
Compare the Rajapaksa fantasy tale with the following description by the very anti-LTTE V Anandasangaree: “Health, water and sanitation situation is horrible. Many people have skin diseases as they don’t get a chance to have a shower for days because of water shortage… Pregnant mothers and newborn babies go through a harrowing time in the camps due to scorching heat” (Tamil Week – 3.6.2009).
In one of his final addresses as Chief Justice, Sarath N Silva spoke forthrightly about the abysmal conditions in the ‘welfare camp’ he visited (ten people to a tent in which standing up is impossible except at the middle, yards long queue to the single ‘toilet’): “I visited ‘relief villages’ where displaced people are sheltered. I cannot explain their suffering and grief in words” (The Hindu – 6.6.2009). He went on to point out that these people cannot expect any succour in law as they exist outside the law of the country: “Law of the country does not show any interest in these IDPs. I openly say this. The authorities can penalise me for telling this…. It is an utter lie if we continue to say that there is only one race and no majority or minorities in the country” (ibid)
Hiding ugly realities behind attractive facades, which was honed on the ‘welfare villages’ has become a staple of Rajapaksa governance. It is being used in every sphere, from development to crime prevention.
Freedom of Expression and Rajapaksa rule are thus mutually exclusive. One will have to go.
That is why the Rajapaksas will continue to suffocate freedom of expression until it becomes nothing more than a dead letter.