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22 September, 2009

Sri Lanka: Biriyani, arrack and kassipu for some journalists


"Go to any police station in the evening. You will find several journalists there. They come on their way home, to have a drink of kassipu, from the stash that the police have collected from raids that day”, says Raju (a fictitious name adopted for security reasons), a life time civil society activist.

They get not only kassipu, but also their news from the police.

Let me give you an example. Two people are killed at a police station. The next day, the heading of a news item in big letters reads, Pathalayan Dennek Maruta, meaning two persons from the underworld have been killed. The heading makes police officers who had done an extra-judicial killing appear as heroes who have eliminated two underworld figures. The free gift of kassipu has not been in vain.

This kind of behavior is explained away by such excuses as the low salaries of local reporters. It is said that these reporters have to travel at their own expense and that they are paid a paltry sum for news items they manage to get published. Publication, it is said, will require the giving of gifts by way of drinks, cigarettes and even cash.

Other places to gather news is the hospitals. There is always some misfortune that ends up in a hospital. With a good contact, such as an attendant, nurse or even sweeper at the hospital, a journalist may find access to such a story. Such trade requires special skills in maintaining contacts and a willingness to give necessary santhosam. However, at police stations, the news, which means the police version of events, is given freely and even with a gift such as a drink of kassipu. Even when an innocent man is arrested, the report in the news paper will read: “Rapist Arrested”, “Kudukaraya arrested”, and the like. Even if the arrested person is released later, no correction of the story is ever made.

It is those in the lower ranks of journalism who may go to police stations for favours. But, the luckier ones have better places to go. The house of a politician is always a place of entertainment for some selected journalists. Most politicians have their own thugs and journalists. The manner in which electorates are managed in Sri Lanka would present interesting material for sociological studies in social degeneration.

The benefits are, of course, higher for journalists who have managed to get closer to small ruling cliques. The ones that do well are those who undertake the task of mudslinging, particularly those who prepare the way for attacks on opponents. Before every political assassination or a serious attack, there is much ‘journalistic’ work to be done. Both before and after the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunga and the attack on Poddala Jayantha, some journalists worked for a long time preparing the background for these attacks and then creating misimpressions after the attack, both in print and electronic media. Before and after every political event, there are many journalists who play their role and get their share.

The crazier the political situation becomes, the opportunities for the cynic acting as a journalist becomes much greater. When the situation degenerates over several years, the idea of the maintenance of standards in journalism begins to disappear in the same way that the people are made to disappear after abductions. The way journalists conduct their business becomes no different to the way a member of parliament like Minister Mervyn Silva often behaves in parliament. There are journalists who will say anything in any manner they chose without any facts to substantiate what they write. The more they ignore their professional ethics the more benefits they get from their patrons.

The very essence and goal of democracy is to tighten the hands of governments. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power, therefore, needs to be bound. The wires that tie the rulers are called laws. That no one is above the law explicitly refers to the fact that that rulers are not above the law. Charles I argued that no one had the right to judge him because he was the king. He relied on a rule that was well-established then. He failed to understand that the views of his the people of his country had changed. He lost his head. No British king or queen ever since has made the same argument.

Then power passed to elected rulers. But the problem still remained. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. New rulers also had to be bound. They also had to obey laws. They were not above the law. Then there were some difficult problems. How, for example, to deal with a war? Your enemy obeys no law. Should you obey law? That even in war there are laws to be obeyed is a rule that evolved over a long period. Finally the Geneva conventions laid down some basic laws of war.

From time to time there are challenges to this principle. George W. Bush, for example, wanted some such laws to be ignored. One law was the international law against torture. Some of his countrymen agreed, at least for sometime. Then, faced with the actual experiences, many were horrified. The voting of the people showed the change in favour of the old rule against torture. Thus, in countries where laws relating to war are accepted, there is a renewed interest in the debates which crated these laws. Charles the First still may have had some admirers. George W. Bush had some also during the Bush era, and many got rich by being “journalists”. By supporting rulers that abuse power, it is possible to get very rich. Today, a political stooge who calls himself a journalist can be assured that biriyani and arrack is served through the backdoor. Such journalist hacks say that the rulers can do whatever they like. The fundamental rule is that hands of rulers must be kept bound if citizens are to live safely. People no longer want monsters to rule over them.

Sri Lanka may be considered the second most dangerous place for journalists. That is for those journalists who take their job seriously. Which is something that the cynics in their profession think only fools should do. Some are assassinated, others have fled the country and one has been jailed for 20 years of rigorous imprisonment. However, to those cynics who want to earn their biriyani, arrack and kassipu, Sri Lanka is indeed a paradise.

Basil Fernando is Executive Director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong, a non-governmental organization monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia.

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