Politics of sleepwalking: Stifling the voices of dissent

The virulent attack by a state-run television channel on reputed writer, translator and media activist Gamini Viyangoda on July 14 is another decisive (and derisive) step in the state’s top-priority project to create  obedient, soulless artists and journalists who will work like robots to promote a singular, uniform culture  functioning  as its propaganda and information tool.

Gamini Viyangoda is one of the few remaining dissenting voices against this monolithic onslaught against the country’s established democratic values and freedom of expression, protesting with supreme courage in his weekly column in the Ravaya newspaper, as well as in speeches and discussions on public forums and on television.

No wonder he has become a prime target for the television which is anything but independent. This attack was based on Viyangoda’s defence of the award-winning film the ‘Flying Fish,’ made by a young filmmaker called Sanjeewa Pushpakumara and screened at the BMICH on Friday, July 12 as part of the French film festival. Officials were so incensed with the screening that the entire festival was suspended, and this led the TV channel to vilify Gamini Viyangoda as an LTTE sympathizer and ‘conspirator.’ The government claims that the film is an insult to the security forces.

In the government’s definition, the security forces are sacrosanct and can’t be criticized on any grounds. Any criticism amounts to an insult. It has been a long-established tradition in Sri Lanka that religion can’t be criticized, or given a modern interpretation, in the arts (as novelist Martin Wickremasinghe learned at great cost in the 1970s). Now, the military too, have been elevated to that sacrosanct level, hence all the fuss over ‘Flying Fish.’

The suspension of an entire film festival because of one film is absurd. The television attack on Viyangoda is a more ominous extension of the wayward justice displayed there. While such attacks on public figures, who hold independent views (running contrary to the official doctrine) have now become routine, the media’s largely silent acceptance of this instance too, as a matter of routine is even more ominous.

Gamini Viyangoda has nothing to do with either the making or the screening of the film. Nor is he a defender of the LTTE. It’s his defence of the fundamental rights of Tamils which has been used to vilify him as ‘pro-Tiger.’

Disinformation at this level is reminiscent of Stalinist Russia and other authoritarian states to the left or right. But this has now become official order at all levels – whether the aim is to vilify an outspoken defender of democracy, or a government MP suddenly claiming that a journalist who was alleged to have been abducted and killed more than four years ago is alive and well in France, or to explain why a minister’s son tried to open the exit door of an airliner in full flight. All three examples are classic cases of deliberate disinformation, with different functions but working insidiously towards the same distasteful goal.

Ramith Rambukwella is an average cricketer whom nobody will remember in another few years. But he’s the son of a high-profile minister with a big mouth, which makes all the difference. Not even that power and influence, however, will qualify the son into any kind of cricket record book, except maybe for the dubious record of being the only cricketer in the history of the game who tried to open the exit door of an airliner in flight.

I’m not sure if modern jet airliners are idiot proof in all aspects of their design, but exit doors seem to be quite safe against idiots. The father, outspoken in the son’s defence, does not even have the wits to say his son may have been drinking himself silly before or during the flight, for only in that context can we begin to understand this action.

Instead, the all-knowing father says his son mistook the exit door for a toilet door. By this, he is implying that his son is a total idiot, or lunatic, either of which should disqualify him from playing serious cricket. We can understand a drunk doing that mistake, though not a sober young man returning to the country after playing cricket for his country.

This sort of thing has nothing to do with education and literacy. It has everything to do with common sense. It’s hard to imagine anyone exiting a train, leave alone an airliner, while looking for the toilet door. I remember another high-profile, big mouth politician, now a minister in this government, who pissed into a hotel swimming pool during a party. There was no official explanation (no one ever complained) but it was widely assumed that he was drunk. Whatever conclusions the general public may have drawn from this, I always took this act as an indicator of the level of our democratic politics.

Even that excuse is not offered in this case. Without going into a history of irresponsible, ludicrous, offensive and criminal acts by our politicians and their sons (the fact that their daughters haven’t got into the news merely highlights their unequal status in their families and society, no matter how powerful and privileged they may look), it’s better to ask why this highly embarrassing process has become institutionalized in our society.

Young Rambukwella trying to open that exit door is highly symbolic of the way our politicians think. Drunk with power and never answerable to the public (count the number of ministers who have resigned over public disasters, mismanagement and scandals) they think any door will open at their behest. They imagine that it’s their birthright. That’s how they think whether they are sober or drunk. I dread to think of the day this man follows his father’s footsteps and becomes a politician.

Photograph by Manjula Wediwardena | JDS

© Daily Mirror


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.