For anyone familiar with ITN’s Vimasuma programme, the storm of controversy it raised this week with a thinly veiled allegation of match fixing against Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera in the World Cup ODI against Pakistan should come as no surprise.
Vimasuma is a five minute post-news segment scripted by a party hack by the name of Mahinda Abeysundara, which is usually used to heap innuendo, calumny, smears, slurs and sundry abuse on anyone or anything perceived as critical of the regime. Favourite targets in the past have included the international community, independent journalists, civil society activists, and of course the political and civic opposition. It is variously snide, spiteful or just plainly malicious in its tone. Guided by the unerring compass of servility to the regime, the tools of Abeysundara’s trade are fear, hatred, prejudice, paranoia, conspiracy theories, economy with the truth, terminological inexactitude, and a hefty chip on the shoulder. It is a caricature of agitprop that is at one level unintentionally hilarious (humour is not one of Abeysundara’s strong points), but more often, watching Vimasuma is one of the best of ways of ensuring the loss of one’s faith in human nature and possibly, the will to live.
Abeysundara is of course entitled to his sclerotic opinions, however ill-informed or ignorant, and the fact that he is employed by a media institution that is substantially owned by the Treasury, meaning that his salary is paid by the tax payer, and meaning further that he is a servant of the public, not the regime, presents no problem these days. (The distinction between the state and the government or the values of public service broadcasting, are all Western abstractions of no relevance or use to us.) There seems to be in Sri Lanka an enormous appetite for venomous journalism, and so Abeysundara continues injecting his daily drip of poison into the public discourse, shielded by the regime, the populist prejudices of public opinion, and a dysfunctional legal system in which even those with a prima facie defamation case hesitate to sue because of the costs, time and bother involved.
Until of course, last Monday, when he overstepped the mark. On the day after Sri Lanka lost to Pakistan, he produced a typically malevolent script, suggesting that Jayawardene and Samaraweera had thrown the match. A reference to some unspecified monetary transaction involving unnamed businessmen was used to strengthen the suggestion. As usual, there was no proof, nothing solid; only vague insinuations designed to inflame paranoia and vicious speculation.
Emboldened by impunity, he forgot that those who live by stoking populist passions usually die by the same method. Attacking the LTTE, the opposition, foreigners or peaceniks is not the same thing as accusing two hugely popular cricketers of dishonesty, in the middle of a national World Cup campaign. Mahela Jayawardene was reported as contemplating legal action against ITN, the cricket board issued a public statement of condemnation and complained to ITN, and as must happen with everything – from building roundabouts in Colombo to bringing peace and development and possibly the supreme bliss of nirvana to Sri Lanka – the cricket team were reported as requesting a meeting with the President to discuss the issue.
More importantly, Abeysundara’s piece raised a hornet’s nest of outrage among the cricket loving public. The massive number of comments on You Tube and elsewhere is unanimous in their condemnation of Abeysundara and his contemptible scandal mongering. Many are in the nature of what was once, before the era of Internet message boards, described as ‘unprintable’. Insofar as what is objected to here is not the legitimate right of the media to criticise the cricket team, but the making of slanderous and unsubstantiated allegations, and given also that Abeysundara’s preferred métier is mob appeal, the use of expletive-ridden abuse is par for the course. In this sense, comeuppance can never be sweeter, but the fact that this is the manner in which we conduct disagreement says much about how incipiently violent our society is.
But it is not in Abeysundara’s nature to be chastened that easily. Adding insult to injury, the Vimasuma broadcast of the following day was a complete reinterpretation of everything that had been said the day before, replete with implausible denials, platitudinous declarations of love for our boys (‘apey kollo’), and an assertion that (unnamed) third parties were responsible for insidiously interpreting the original broadcast as anything other than the staunchest expression of support for the national cricketers. The last one is a predictable device, regularly trotted out in constructing imagined conspiracies against Sri Lanka, but which is more than usually ridiculous in this context. Admittedly, it also included a cack-handed and grudging expression of regret for hurting the feelings of Mahela and Thilan, but overall, it was not the unconditional apology that reasonable people expected. This was left to ITN to offer.
I suspect that this will be the end of the matter. There will be no sacking; no litigation; no accountability. After all, Mervyn Silva has got away with worse, more than once. Episodic as they may seem, these are nonetheless the occasions in which we glimpse the extent of the erosion of democratic values, and worse, how far away we are from the ideal of the decent society in the sense that Avishai Margalit understood it. The focus of political philosophy from Plato to Rawls has been the ideal of the just society that secures human dignity. Margalit argues that the more tangible object is the decent society, defined as one in which its members do not humiliate one another.
When the freedom to hold and express opinions becomes an exercise in ritual humiliation and abuse, not only is it a misuse of that fundamental democratic freedom, but we also lose our claim to being a decent society, just as much as excessive partisanship and the lack of respect for rules regulating fairness undermine our democracy. The political structures that sustain the necessity for services of the kind Mahinda Abeysundara currently performs at ITN, and, as we have seen with the cricket contretemps, the emotive and perhaps violent reactions those structures generate, corrode the very fabric of the decent society. It is something we should all take seriously if we do not want to go the way of the Maghreb countries.