Photo by REUTERS/Philip Brown

2016 was, among other things, a year conspicuous for illustrating the successes of several years of political rebranding, at least in the West. Over the past few years, Marine Le Pen, head of France’s right-wing National Front, ditched the neo-Nazi and homophobic rhetoric that her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made famous, and is now a serious contender for the French Presidency.

She has rebranded her party by replacing the old symbols of skinhead hatred with a consistent ideology that draws from much of the language and many of the causes of her left-leaning opponents. Le Pen has managed to portray herself as a defender of rights for women and gays while painting Muslim immigrants as threats to these groups.

Presenting herself and her party as the protectors of Western freedoms, she makes it very clear that these liberties will be pulverized by the inflowing Muslim masses. Indeed, Le Pen stumps for increased welfare, but only for the “truly” French, and certainly not for freeloading immigrants. Political parties in the Netherlands and Denmark have followed her lead.

In the United States, white racism, older than the country itself, remade itself as the “Alt-Right,” whereby those who would be known as white supremacists and members of the Ku Klux Klan took off their hoods in favor of suits and ties. Followers of the Alt-Right aren’t racists but “race realists,” their speech not full of hatred but “common sense.”

The Alt-Right isn’t a new phenomenon, yet it has branded itself as one, and many Americans conceive of it as something slightly different from the nation’s centuries-old meat and potatoes racist movements.

The central lesson of rebranding is that, if one rewrites the terms and language associated with institutions, ideas, and even people, these rebranded subjects can seem new even if they are the same old organizations, philosophies, and dopes that behave in the same manner they always did. We, as citizens of the world, should be wary of any form of rebranding, be it political, economic, or social, as it has a startling propensity for trickery.

The Sri Lankan government has, for the past two years, undertaken its own rebranding campaign. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have, they say, instituted good governance, helped spread racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance and acceptance, and made the government more transparent and open to the media.

The rhetoric, at least, is at first convincing: the post-Rajapakse years have seen a reduction in violence against journalists and the gradual opening of the press. The implementation of the Right to Information Act, the argument goes, will inaugurate a new era of political transparency, from which juicy drops of information will trickle down to a heretofore dehydrated media. The media, they say, will have the power to criticize the government’s corruption and incompetence, thus allowing the common citizen to glean a greater understanding of the machinations and bureaucracies of the political process.

What this argument fails to account for, however, is that there are few mainstream independent English media outlets in Sri Lanka that could fully capitalize on the relaxation of political censorship and increasing governmental transparency. The government owns several media institutions, while powerful political families control many of the ostensibly “independent” media outlets. This lack of a truly independent mainstream media means that, while explicit censorship is less prevalent, self-censorship remains rampant, making the conventional English media free in name only.

Editors, acting to maintain their positions, bar reporters from chasing controversial stories and outlaw the negative coverage of prominent politicians and business leaders. While I was doing research for a story on illegal logging in the highlands, a well-placed source revealed that much of the criminal activity could be traced to a wealthy Colombo businessman. This detail, however, was erased from the version that was published. Those who would reveal valuable information or voice criticisms of politicians and government decisions are thereby silenced, whether they are journalists or private citizens, as newspapers will not publish their views.

The effects of self-censorship are highly damaging and lead journalists to depend on those within the political apparatus for information, lest their stories be disallowed due to the inclusion of unacceptable sources. Meanwhile, depending on politicians for information is a dangerous game. Since when do they give unbiased assessments of their policies or actions? I recently sat down with a prominent Member of Parliament for a discussion on several policy initiatives he is undertaking, and, after giving the party line for half an hour, he requested that we speak off the record. He then proceeded to tell me that the programs he had spent the last thirty minutes praising were severely flawed and finally not implementable. What the public would read in the press, however, was his exhortation that the nation implement these important policies. The implementation of the Right to Information Act will hopefully lead to a more honest political class, but the extant culture of secrecy would have to be undone.

While some politicians will discuss their policies, giving only the positive side, almost every single parliamentarian I’ve spoken with refuses to disclose information that they think could be damaging.

I say this not to impugn the political class as a whole but to point to the fact politicians are effectively in the business of public relations. Admitting their own errors, incompetence, and corruption is antithetical to their prime job of maintaining a support base for reelection. You cannot get unbiased information from politicians.

That is why it is concerning that so many stories quoting only politicians or their spokespeople appear without input from those outside of government. The dependence on government officials for information allows politicians to dictate terms and control the public political discourse, while also making the media completely dependent on the government for information, which, as I’ve mentioned, is a loser’s game. The media are rendered impotent in this setup and become propagators of propaganda rather than watchdogs who hold the state to account.

This is not to say that there is nobody doing investigative journalism in Sri Lanka, but that too much of the media’s energy is concentrated in reporting on events and happenings without properly analyzing them. If you flip through the English-language papers, there are myriad reports of the latest auto accident or natural disaster. The stories are all the same: location, action, and number of dead and injured. While such reports do present news, they are mostly left unanalyzed. Instead of asking why there are so many motorbike and three-wheeler crashes, journalists simply report the events without digging below their surface.

This lack of analysis is not just a problem in Sri Lanka, as there is a global trend toward shorter articles with less analysis. We live in a Twitter-infested and attention-deficit-disorder afflicted world. There is less demand for long form, investigative pieces that truly educate and inform the public, rather than short pieces that concentrate on atomized happenings without weaving them into a broader narrative.

There’s also a high prevalence of stories consisting of political “he said, she saids,” whereby gossip and personal grudges eclipse important events and thereby become the news. Making politics into theater is never good and almost always favors the demagogues, as the Rajapakses and Trumps of the world know only too well.

That accidents and other instances of human suffering constitute news is understandable, however, as there is demand for stories about terrible occurrences. Just look at local and global media outlets after a terror attack or massive storm or earthquake. Horror sells papers. But the coverage of political gossip and infighting, I think, results both from the public’s demand and from the media’s relative inability to fully report on pressing, controversial issues. When you cannot truly report on ethnic tensions, the slow demilitarization of the north, and the reasons behind BIA’s runway closing, you are liable to write on less politically charged topics. Also, of course, gossip sells papers, further contributing to its inclusion.

The most successful rebrandings, as opposed to those mentioned above, create a new category that, though ancestrally related to the prior brand, is markedly different. So far, the government has failed in its mainstream media rebranding, as the same old patterns are cropping up, albeit without the constant threats and white vans.