Last week began with a press conference on human smuggling and trafficking. Mid-week, the government expressed renewed interest in regulating web content, through compulsory registration of news websites. Towards the end of the week, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously passed a resolution that “affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice.”
All three are vital developments. The growing web censorship in Sri Lanka, begun a few years ago under the guise of protecting children from pornography and now conducted through the language of public morality and decency, is disturbing. Nary a word by government on the unequivocal hate speech openly, and with total impunity, featured on broadcasts and websites including those of the ITN, SLRC, SLBC and in particular, the websites of MCNS and Defence.lk. The same government that condemns websites for inflammatory content condones open admissions of violence against journalists and the most heinous threats against human rights activists by the likes of Mervyn Silva. In May 2009, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe famously said “soldiers saved all Tamil civilians trapped inside the war zone without shedding a drop of blood”. I have yet to read online, on any independent website, something as misleading, immoral or violent as that single statement.
But it’s not just government attitudes towards the virtual that’s farcical. On Wednesday, media reported that government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella believed that “there were no Lankans in the recent boat controversies”. Days before, Australian and Sri Lankan media reports flagged a small fishing vessel intercepted off Christmas Island. The boat’s name was ‘Sanjana Putha 04’, written in Sinhala. And while cruel friends wrote in to say I had chosen an excellent line of business on the side, this blatant fact – leave aside media reports over the past fortnight alone – suggests the government’s approach to the growing challenge of human smuggling and trafficking is to deny outright it even exists. This is not unusual. It is a natural encroachment of blanket denial as official policy – first employed, with great success domestically, over allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses during war, and now used for anything that contests the predominant narrative of government.
Blanket denial aside, the significant incoherence within government to the issue of human smuggling and trafficking was evident at a press conference organised by the Sri Lanka Press Institute on Monday. Government representatives could not agree on whether there were adequate legal provisions to address trafficking – one said no, another said yes. There were no clear numbers of those involved or trafficked, even within the space of a single presentation by a government representative. The Head of the Counter Trafficking Unit of the Department of Immigration and Emigration repeatedly noted that 99% of those seeking asylum were Tamils or Muslims and that he was convinced this illegal outflow of persons was because of economic reasons. When asked for evidence and data to support this assertion, he didn’t have any – because as the Police spokesperson admitted, those questioned upon entering the country after deportation aren’t actually asked why they embarked upon such a perilous journey in the first place. And so, though we can make informed guesses, we don’t really know exactly why so many are leaving, in the manner they do, three years after the war ended and at a time when the official narrative suggests we are living in a time of unprecedented peace, prosperity and opportunity.
The banal palaver that infuses responses to both trafficking and online censorship is tiresomely predictable. It’s not really a problem. To make it seem a problem is a big conspiracy, done to tarnish Sri Lanka’s good name. Somehow, somewhere, the LTTE rump’s behind it. It’s all wild allegations, based on vested, Western interests. In the case of online censorship, it’s really done for your own good and protection.
My son, at five and a half, cannot yet distinguish fully between a fairy tale and real life. It appears that the majority of Sri Lankans are no different to him.
Published in the print edition of The Nation, 8 July 2012