Hunting snarks

There is no such thing as a snark. The word, referring to an imaginary animal, was coined in 1876 by Lewis Carroll in ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. I was reminded of Carroll’s word when over breakfast this week, a friend and I spoke about media freedom, and the pitfalls and potential of free expression online in post-war Sri Lanka. Because I founded and co-curate a website widely perceived to be stridently critical of government and governance, I get a lot of requests for interview and soundbites about the health of media freedom. When five websites were blocked last year, the resulting fear of a wider blanket censorship of critical content and dissent online led to a tsunami of calls and emails, mostly by individuals without a real grasp of how censorship works online, and more than a few who had leading questions and wanted me to support what were incorrect observations and predictions. This government is no friend of an independent, critical media. The recently released report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, appointed by no less office than the President, unequivocally noted the degree to which media freedom has eroded, and attacks against critical voices take place with impunity post-war. To list in detail the attacks – physical, verbal and virtual – is to flog a dead horse. What irks me is that this sordid record is taken by some in the country, and by journalists writing on Sri Lanka, as license for inaccurate reporting, and unfair pronouncements against Government. I am no friend of it, but some balance is called for.

And this is where one enters a minefield. The popular narrative, and a justified one at that, is that most media production and publication in Sri Lanka is hostage to the authoritarian control of government. There is no official censorship, but self-censorship bedevils investigative, independent journalism even post-war. The inexorable growth of web based publishing platforms in Tamil, Sinhala and English – from websites to blogs, from Twitter feeds to Facebook groups, from YouTube video channels to Flickr groups – challenges the boundaries of what’s permissible and tolerated in mainstream media. However, as the extra-judicial and arbitrary blocking of websites since 2007 demonstrates, the government is not above extending a draconian command and control mentality to online activism and inconvenient truths disseminated on the web.

Yet while these inconvenient truths are often linked to or about the government, there are also inconvenient truths about those who champion media freedom. The challenge I’ve found is to talk about the latter, when most are only interested in and seek to amplify the former. Both however, exist in a caustic symbiosis. If the discourse on media freedom does not address the shortcomings of the media itself as well as the decay and failures inside media freedom lobby groups, it will fail to gain traction beyond the already converted. And without broader traction, reform of the media and media freedom – absolutely vital to reconciliation as noted by the LLRC report – will remain a good idea.

Why is talking about this so hard? For starters, the moment one flags the significant decay within the media – from parochialism and sexism to the outright racism of media owners, the bias of Editors and the mechanics of the marketplace, which is censors through advertising – the kickback, often immediate and quite venomous, is that none of these problems really exist. Deny, decry and denounce is a familiar recipe used by government. It is the same recipe employed by most mainstream media itself when under a critical gaze. Within the community, the problems are well-known. Editors who don’t want to sit with others around the same table, the awful politics of annual journalism awards, the divide between electronic and print media, the petty, personal politics, the language divides, the ready recourse to seniority to mask banality, the machinations behind appointments to and the running of journalism schools – these are much more reflect a world not very different from the familiar muck of government. For many, media freedom is the blossoming of media – more channels, more newspapers and ostensibly more choice. However, the qualitative nature of media is undervalued, and this is a problem. Post-war media in Sri Lanka is a smorgasbord of the most banal, trivial, tabloid journalism with writers who cannot even spell or source a story correctly. Electronic media is no different. One has to just tune into the morning shows of any radio station to recognise the sheer banality and ignorance paraded, without any shame, as something to be proud of. Free media must embrace cheap talk, but why let the basest journalism define a profession and practice that the likes of HAJ Hulugalle, Tarzie Vittachi, Reggie Michel and Mervyn de Silva demonstrated could be so much better and civil even when sharply critical? And even outside politics, where are the DJ’s on radio today that even come close to the musical knowledge, broader learning and sardonic wit Tracy Holsinger and Afdhel Aziz enthralled us with as recently as the mid-90s?

This same entropy one finds in many of the local collectives and groups promoting media freedom. Here too one risks the greatest violence when attempting to flag the corruption and rot within. For sure, weak institutions can challenge the violent intolerance of government towards critical dissent and independent media. Yet the more they do so, the more they set themselves up for failure. All what censorious powers simply have to do when faced with criticism over their policies and practices is to flag the real disconnect between what is articulated and the nature of the individual or institution it is articulated by. And while the government does this in full knowledge that thrust of the criticism is valid, its response is unsurprising for it plays on the essential weakness of the media reform lobby – they are as unwilling as government to look within, and address that which they know is wrong. By extension, to be critical of some journalists in exile is like vomiting on the Pope – it’s just not done, and risks an almost divine wrath. Yet I know and many others do too, that in between genuine cases – where had they chosen to stay on, they would have been seriously harmed or killed – some in the media also used a horrible context for independent media to get out of the country, for a better life abroad. Officials of embassies and high commissions that sponsored some of individuals are now privately embarrassed they were, on occasion, taken in by the inaccurate, inflated reports of persecution. As a result, a rotten few go on to tragically undermine lifelines for the protection of critical voices, and are active voices now in the diaspora, or raising families in relative silence. Ironically, even amongst those in exile – and you would have thought that bound by tragic circumstance, this would be a more cohesive, collaborative group of individuals – the degree of animosity towards one another borders on the incredible. Platforms of dissent begun in earnest quickly and violently disintegrate into ever smaller units, with the result that many in exile now run their own blogs. These fractures take their toll on the appeal and reach of their advocacy, which can be so powerful, but really isn’t. Some groups see it fit, without any consultation whatsoever, to issue calls to boycott events in Sri Lanka for which they are then isolated not just from a broader appeal within the country, but from those in it deeply committed to greater media freedom. An exiled journalist writing to one platform is ignored by another group, and this goes on to the point of absurdity – there is for example little or no cross-posting of articles penned by those in exile. Each platform is its own bubble, and all are weakened as a consequence. Not a single group in exile or in Sri Lanka have thus far engaged with the LLRC report’s submissions on the freedom of expression, media freedom and the right to information legislation.  Nothing epiphanic in the report for sure, but a Presidential Commission that so unequivocally advocates for something the government is opposed to (RTI legislation) and condoned (violence against media) needs to be critically engaged with, not dismissed. It remained for English PEN, in light of the Galle Literary Festival, to pen the most informed and compelling briefing of the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka today. And that says much.

The knee-jerk reaction to all this? Keep calm, and carry on as usual. I’ve noticed it in the leading questions and attitudes of those who inquire about media freedom. Criticism against government is sought after, and lapped up. Considering, even in passing, the problems within the media itself and the media freedom lobby, is not done. Even when faithfully recorded on tape or Moleskine, these issues never make it into print, broadcast or online. To unequivocally champion the freedom of expression as a point of principle and stand openly against creeping censorship should not be by extension succour to the drivel that some of the websites recently blocked feature, and seem to feel constitutes journalism of a higher standard. To recognise the validity and sadly, the on-going need of support structures for journalists at risk that include emergency evacuation and the granting of asylum is not to condone their own shortcomings, and the need to look into the possibility that they may be persecuted for reasons other than their strident journalism. This inward gaze does not negate the larger context of threats against critical dissent by government, even post-war. It is necessary because without it, media freedom will remain a snark – an imagined creation that fits parochial agendas and ultimately serves only to bolster those who are censorious.

If we cannot be the change we want to see, perhaps we don’t deserve change?

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Published in The Nation, 22 January 2012.

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