Sunday, June 7, 2009

The right and wrong pertaining to Poddala Jayantha

By Malinda Seneviratne

Poddala Jayantha, Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association was abducted and assaulted on June 1, 2009. The ‘who’ and the ‘why’ of this attack is yet to be determined and I believe it is of little use to engage in conjecture.

On the other hand, this attack is not the first on a journalist. Over the years many journalists have been abducted, attacked and even killed. Some of these incidents have been investigated to conclusion and some have not.

I am not a member of any media collective. I believe that there are people out there who prefer quiescent journalists to relatively independent ones (‘an independent journalist’ is a non-existent creature) and I know that politicians are pretty sensitive creatures who for the most part don’t have what it takes to stomach criticism. At the same time, we have to keep in mind that journalists are hardly the saints they would like people to believe they are. Journalists are not above the law; they don’t enjoy any special immunity. They have enemies and not all of these enemies are in the Government.

We know that some arrests have been made. We know that Poddala Jayantha was quite an activist, even though one might not agree with the causes he championed or endorsed the policies his fellow-travellers.

Today, there are few, if any, who would stand up and say ‘this was wrong!’ when the news came that Poddala Jayantha had been attacked. Why? First, it was Poddala Jayantha who was attacked. He not only spouted nonsense on occasion regarding the situation in the country, but his organization had intimate dealings with forces that were actively operating to destabilize the country and give leg-room for the Tigers. Under these circumstances and especially after all such efforts have been comprehensively squashed, few would be ready to stand with Jayantha as per the basic civil duty of opposing anything outside the framework of the law. This is after all a period when everyone is a ‘patriot’ and when it is not easy to not be one.

Poddala Jayantha was never a patriot in the sense that he belonged to a motley group of disgruntled Enjoyists (NGO activists) whose livelihoods depended on bad mouthing the Government, the Sinhalese and the Buddhists. The organization he was associated with, the Working Journalists’ Association and its sister organizations in the sphere of agitation are moreover are currently in the dock (along with Jayantha and his pals Sunanda Deshapriya and Balasuriya) for perpetrating fraud. He was certainly a man whose hand can be held even in a moment of tragedy only with trepidation.

Let me repeat, I do not wish to go into the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of this attack. At the same time, one needs to remember that there have been strident ‘expose and kill’ calls regarding journalists and others deemed to have acted against the national interest. Such cries have been raised perhaps by a nationalist urge that has spilled over the boundaries of reason and the need to respect the structures that dispense justice in this country. A moment of euphoria cannot be grudged a nation that has suffered for 30 years under the shadow of terrorism, but that does not justify in any way the call for lynch-mobs.

I should mention also, that not all ‘patriots’ lighting crackers in the print and electronic media were exactly patriotic during those long years when one was called ‘war monger’ or ‘racist’ for saying that the LTTE must and can be defeated militarily. As my friend Shamindra Ferdinando observed in a good-humoured tone laced with a dash of irony, the media war was the private property of ITN and Rupavahini. Until they came into the picture, the media and journalistic fraternity in general was ‘unpatriotic’, they would have us believe.

This mindless ‘call for blood’ may or may not have precipitated this incident. It may be come from elsewhere, but it should alert all of us to the dangerous consequences of irresponsible journalism. On the one hand, a cogent argument can be made for arguments of the Jayantha-asked-for-it kind, even though, strictly speaking Jayantha was not a journalist and not even a working journalist but a person who profited from activism and a man who is under a shadow for defrauding organizations he is associated with. On the other hand, this lets-bypass-the-law attitude is the bread and butter of the worst kind of anarchy possible. We can’t afford it.

If Jayantha was victim of some personal, non-political feud, it’s a different matter, but if the attack had some other, clearly political motivation then we are sitting on a time-bomb. It is silly and tragic because there are better, and in the long run, more effective ways of neutralizing the Poddala Jayanthas in our media scene. They have to be exposed, it’s that simple.

Sunanda Deshapriya went to the UN recently and vomited all over his shirt-font. All that needs to be done is to challenge him to substantiate his assertions in public. Or admit he is chicken. All that needs to be done is to ask Nimalka Fernando, who bent backwards to make the world believe Sri Lanka was ‘failed state’, how and why she uses the word ‘motherland’ these days when talking about this country.

Those ‘anti-Sri Lanka’ journalists, and yes, there are many such creatures, should not be beaten up or shot, just as the anti-Sri Lanka media outfits should not be torched. They have to be exposed. They can be investigated and action filed if there is evidence of wrong-doing. The ideological positions should be dismantled by solid argument backed by fact. Any other way would be disastrous in the short-term and the long, locally and internationally.

I hope Poddala’s attackers are brought before the law. And I hope that those who disagree with Poddala Jayantha’s politics call him out for being ideologically puerile, intellectually slow and for being moral fraud and a crook to boot. The same goes for Sunanda Deshapriya. All that needs to be done is an independent investigation of the affairs of the Free Media Movement, for example the Conflict Sensitive Reporting Programme which Sunada Deshapriya conducted with IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) and FMM (Free Media Movement) in 2004.

That would be lynching enough. Anything else, leave it to the Police. Citizens do not have police powers and for good reason. Citizens should never be encouraged to take on such powers unless of course the structures of justice have collapsed beyond resurrection. That would be time for a revolution. We are nowhere close to that. In short, the media should be responsible, especially today when emotions are running high. This is the time it is imperative that everyone is sober.

(Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be contacted at