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D.R. Wijewardene was hooted and everyone cheered

"What all this means is that complaint has to fall back finally on stated criteria. And, when it comes to things subjective, unless injustice stands out like a sore thumb, it is better for contestants and others to grin and bear."

by Malinda Seneviratne

(July 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Those who submit to assessment, one assumes, know on what they will be judged and would do well to reconcile themselves to living with the judgment. Judgment can sometimes be utterly subjective. Political and other loyalties can come into play. That’s part of the story and those who submit to judgment cannot pretend to be innocent about such things.

This is true of all awards, by the way, local and foreign, pertaining to literature, cinema, music and other art forms as well as sports and journalism. Where assessment does not refer only to objective criteria (for example aggregates, averages, number of wickets or catches taken in cricket or number of tries scored in rugby) adjudication is tough and can draw all kinds of flak; one eye being different from the next. The same goes for team selection I suppose. Selectors have to draw on multiple data sets and not all the information can be quantified or categorized.

What all this means is that complaint has to fall back finally on stated criteria. And, when it comes to things subjective, unless injustice stands out like a sore thumb, it is better for contestants and others to grin and bear.

Now I submit work for assessment, even though I am not exactly in awe of the awarding institutions or the judges they appoint and am not shy to say that some of their MCs could offer themselves as prime examples of the adage ‘pirunu kale diya no-sele’ (the pot full of water makes no noise). I don’t complain about the judges or judging. I congratulate winners, chit-chat and go home. I feel, however, that I can talk about awards that refer to the public sphere and which lend towards public spectacle. In short, the Excellence in Journalism Awards. Even shorter, the ‘by-nomination’ D.R. Wijewardene Award ‘for earning the appreciation of peers and the public.’ I can speak on account of being ‘peer’ and part of ‘public’.

The main award was given to Iqbal Athas while Shamindra Ferdinando, Sirimevan Kasthuriarachchi, Mihiri Fonseka and Ramesh Warallagama received ‘honourable mention’. Conspicuous absentees include Ranga Jayasuriya (Sunday Lakbima News) and Tissa Ravindra Perera (Rivira) but let’s put that down to ‘personal preference’ (I am in a generous mood). The relevant citation had mentioned that the year under consideration, 2009, was a period of political and military uncertainly and that the awarders wanted to reward writing in the public interest, keeping the people informed and offering relevant analysis.

Here’s the first and most pertinent factor that struck me. Iqbal Athas did not write a single defence article in any Sri Lankan newspaper in the year under review! His last column was on December 28, 2008 where he basically said that it was all a toss up, i.e. either the Government forces or the LTTE could emerge winner. Now this ‘astute analyst’ did not foresee that 5 days later, the security forces would capture Kilinochchi. That should earn a zero for analytical ability, don’t you agree?

Athas fled the country. Well, some might say that had he not, he would have been arrested for putting the lives of soldiers at risk by mischievous journalism. If it was the truth and nothing but the truth, then one can defend Athas, but this was not the case. He played his cards as he had done for years during the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime and during Ranil Wickremesinghe’ brief stint as Prime Minister. Why did Chandrika give him bodyguards (5 or 6 I believe). What kind of journalistic courage did he have if he required such protection? Who was he afraid of? His is a history of trying to sabotage efforts to end the terrorist menace. He was selective in his truth-exposing and that’s the rub and that’s what makes this award even more of an insult to those who wrote without fear or favour (and paid a heavy price too, for example Keith Noyahr) and those who were more honest, i.e. took a side and stated bias.

Corruption should be exposed, let there be no confusion about this. If it was in saluting the truth, I would salute this man. He will know but would not tell I am sure whether he was wined and dined by the LTTE. I hope he was not. And I hope he didn’t blackmail any Army Officers or obtained any favour on threat of exposing wrong-doing. He would be able to tell us whether or not he got a piece of state land through blackmail. His selectivity of ‘fact’ and the line he deliberately pushed is pretty evident. It could be put down to rank dishonesty or downright incompetence. In my generous mood, I will defer to the latter. It is established that the man was not an analyst worth his monthly pay cheque, forget about peer recognition.

Now, there are defence correspondents and defence correspondents. Some just state facts. Some are selective about what they say. Some are into military games of ego-boosting and career enhancement. Some get paid for their dirty work. Some give you the facts, give you the analysis and make sure that national security is not compromised in their writings. That’s skill. Iqbal sad to say, was not skilled.

Journalists have a role to play. As whistle blower and as watch dog. We are good at pointing fingers. We are terrible when it comes to admitting that our house is not in order. Something fishy must have been happening and I am pretty sure that D.R. Wijewardene, wherever he may be today, must be frowning.

Iqbal, if he had any integrity, should have rejected the award politely saying “thanks, but folks, I did not write in the year 2009 and also, I got it all wrong the last time I wrote’. I might add, ‘you were bound to, buddy’. As I said, a defence correspondent who could not foresee the capture of Kilinochchi 5 days before it happened ought to give up. Maybe that’s what he did and if that was what happened then he doesn’t deserve this award. As for those who made this determination, they stand judged too and they are not looking very pretty right now.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malinsene@gmail.com

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