| by Pearl Thevanayagam

(June 22, 2014, Bradford UK, Sri Lanka Guardian)Take a stand, the late veteran journalist Ajith Samaranayake said during a lecture for post graduate journalists at Colombo University and it still reverberates in my ears. And in this light I am reminded of Iqbal Athas whose popular Defence Column enabled international media to assess the ground situation during the 35 year old protracted between the government and the LTTE.

It is with relief that I learnt Iqbal Athas, a veteran Muslim journalist and respected the world over for his integrity and CNN correspondent is back in Colombo imparting his journalistic skills despite the threats on his life and those of his wife and child.

His dispassionate report to CNN on the recent tragic incident in Aluthgma shows we have only a handful of intrepid and honest journalists left barring those who have been murdered by the government.

Iqbal Athas is a journalist par excellence in that he cannot be bought for money, power or perks unlike those present day cheque book and sycophant journalists who are ready to wipe the bottoms of the ruling government to curry favour with it for simple munificence such as laptops.
This writer has had the privilege of being tutored in investigative journalism by Iqbal Athas at the now defunct Independent Newspapers owned by the Gunasenas.

It was famously said the Gulf War was brought to an end in the nineties by the media. Had it not been for the independent media’s exposure of the BBS mad monk Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero in a video spitting venom against Muslims with his robe askew and spewing invective, the flare-up in Aluthgama would have exploded into a nationwide violence surpassing the July 1983 ethnic riots.

It is also to the credit of the many Sinhala journalists of the independent media that the plight of Muslims was given international exposure. Their despatches to both local and foreign media managed to quell the BBS violence spreading. Which brings into focus that the majority Sinhalese be they Buddhists or Christians do not condone violence or religious intolerance.

Gamini Navaratne, the veteran Sinhala journalist, ensconced himself in Jaffna during the July 1983 riots and edited Saturday Review while Colombo media totally blanked out news in both print and electronic media.

There is also call by certain sections of the media that Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem should resign to protest the violence unleashed against Muslims. For this very reason Minister Hakeem should hold his cabinet portfolio and show his solidarity for justice to all ethnic groups in the country. Leaving the cabinet is what the knee-jerk response the hardliner Buddhists are expecting. In fact, more Muslims should come forward to contest elections thereby ensuring Muslims are protected and given their due rights in their homeland which is Sri Lanka.

The media’s role in responsible reporting is crucial for the nation’s stability and its foreign relations which is under severe strain to say the least. Media should not make use of unfortunate religious clashes such as incidents in Aluthgama to push agendas for political purposes.

From out of nowhere Tamil politicians who remained silent during the forced exodus of Muslims by the Tamil Tigers are crying crocodile tears over BBS attack on Muslims. Even pro-LTTE media are now fawning over the Muslims whereas inwardly they are gloating the Muslims have had their come-uppance.

It is indeed a welcome move that Muslim ministers are meeting with the President and Police Chief Ilangakoon in Badulla to find a viable solution which would prevent further clashes between monks and Muslims. The media should allocate equal space to the outcome of this meeting.

It is a sad indictment on the national psyche that the BBS orchestrated violence in Aluthgama has spread to the four corners of the island targeting Muslim businesses and causing damage to Muslim properties, although not on the scale of July 1983 pogrom, will soon emerge as a full-scale attempt by extremist Buddhist forces which would alienate our brethren further away and resort to seeking autonomy.

There is a world of difference between Muslims abroad and Muslims in Sri Lanka.

(The writer has been a journalist for 25 years and worked in national newspapers as sub-editor, news reporter and news editor. She was Colombo Correspondent for Times of India and has contributed to Wall Street Journal where she was on work experience from The Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, California. Currently residing in UK she is also co-founder of EJN (Exiled Journalists Network) UK in 2005 the membership of which is 200 from 40 countries. She can be reached at pearltheva@hotmail.com)