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Media in the dock – ‘Innocence of the pen questioned’

by Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

(November 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Victor Ivan’s new book “Innocence of the pen questioned” (Ravaya publication, Sept.2010) makes its appearance at a crucial point in time in the trajectory of Sri Lankan media and politics. During a phase when both the media and the political system are struggling to adjust to the new realities of a post-war situation, the contents of this book are likely to re-ignite intractable debates surrounding these subjects.

Ivan’s intensity and candour in setting down his thoughts invest the book with a no-holds-barred quality that makes it a riveting read. More importantly, the views expressed, subjective and individualistic though they may be, would hopefully initiate discussions towards the creation of a media culture that is more honest and self-critical. (This is in fact a stated objective of the book)

‘Innocence of the pen questioned’ dwells on several aspects of Ivan’s own journalistic experience, including but not limited to Ravaya, the newspaper he founded and owns and edits. In this sense it is largely anecdotal. But this material is always related to larger social and political realities, the author’s conviction of the need for change at broader systemic levels, and questions relating to the journalist’s role in society.

In the process of talking about his own experiences, Ivan raises some key issues that bedevil the Sri Lankan media scene. It would appear that these issues have not been subjected to public scrutiny for complex reasons. Perhaps partly owing to the risky circumstances that prevailed during the war, and the dangers involved in naming names and relating stories. Ivan however names names, and relates stories, and does so in detail. As a result he (and the book) will be vilified by some, and praised by others. Herein lies the courage of his enterprise.

One of the important questions raised is, whether or not the journalist should engage - as an actor - in politics. Ivan has by his own admission played this “king making” role in recent Sri Lankan politics. He describes in some detail his work as the chief architect of the SLFP’s publicity campaign during the 1994 general elections, as well as an image-building exercise relating to Chandrika Kumaratunga, that contributed to her rise in the political firmament at the time. Kumaratunga went on to win the presidential election that year.

“A question however remains whether a media person could appear for a political objective or not. It is a controversial issue,” he writes. He raises this vital question and comes to the verge of addressing it, but does not proceed. This is unfortunate, seeing that Ivan would have been well placed to lead such a discussion, having ‘been in the belly of the beast,’ so to speak. But he does discuss and compare his involvement with politics with that of the late Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga who, he says, strove to bring a UNP government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe into power. Ivan goes on to speculate on reasons why he escaped the grisly fate of his colleague.

Another area subjected to extensive discussion in the book relates to the activities of media NGOs, and the whole question of media freedom. In his writings elsewhere too, Ivan has highlighted peculiarities of the organization called the Free Media Movement. Here again, having been a founder member who has now parted company with the group, he is well placed to critique it. He questions its cliquishness as well as its lack of transparency.

Ivan’s discussion prompts the question as to why media NGOs like FMM are wary of opening their membership and decision-making committees to the broader community of professional journalists. Is it because independent minded journalists are inclined to ask questions (Where’s the funding coming from? What’s the donors’ agenda, etc.?) One of the criticisms he makes of the FMM is that the foreign aid it received was contingent on its adopting an ideological stance opposed to the war - “consequently their political stance had become an income source for them to earn money,” he says. This situation hampered the outfit’s ability to make “an impartial and correct assessment of the war,” he argues.

It is no secret that scribes in Sri Lanka had to carry out their duties in a most uncongenial environment, fraught with multiple dangers during the decades of conflict. Ivan describes in some detail, cases where journalists were threatened, intimidated, assaulted or killed. He shows that not all these violent incidents could be blamed on the government or security forces, but that the FMM unfailingly portrayed them as such. There was a lack of interest in investigating the background to these incidents, and as a result the true picture was often not revealed. Among these victims were:

1) journalists who were attacked for doing things that could not be described as falling within their call of duty

2) journalists who were attacked for doing things that advanced their political agendas (in this category were LTTE activists claiming to be media persons)

3) journalists who exploited the volatile situation for personal gain, using political asylum as an easy way to go abroad

Among these categories were bona fide journalists as well as persons whose media credentials were dubious or non-existent. The author illustrates this with anecdotes from his personal experience.
Ivan’s argument is that none of these cases could strictly be considered as attacks on media freedom. Yet all of them were uncritically seized upon by the FMM. Again, he hints at the corrupting influence of large injections of foreign funds.

“The Free Media Movement presented itself as a movement of media freedom,” he writes. “At the same time, it received foreign aid for this project. In 2008 alone, it received foreign aid to the tune of over Rs.10 million for various projects. It had received a substantial amount of money by way of foreign aid to ensure the safety of the media people. Perhaps, they may have exaggerated the situation of the country painting a dismal picture with the view to obtaining an increased share of foreign aid for the movement.”

Ivan is critical of the conduct of individual journalists as well as the media organizations. Perhaps the biggest disservice to the journalist community resulting from the media organizations’ misrepresentation of the media landscape is that when a real journalist somewhere actually does get intimidated or attacked by state agents, it is met with public apathy and skepticism.

Ivan highlights the need to restore public confidence in the media as an urgent need. He makes a number of recommendations to this end.

The book may have some stylistic flaws, and tends to be rambling and repetitive in parts. Love it or hate it, its value lies in its underlying honesty. It’s a “must read” for journalists, ex-journalists, wannabe journalists, charlatans and hucksters alike …

The writer is a senior freelance journalist. Tell a Friend

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