Featured image courtesy Reporters Sans Frontieres
Under the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005 and 2015, government brutality and censorship towards the media in Sri Lanka reached new levels. This was to the extent that in the Reporters Without Borders’ Index of Press Freedom it was ranked 165 out of 170 countries in 2015 (up from 115 in 2005) of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist. Furthermore, in 2014 the island was declared the fourth most dangerous country in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ global index of journalists murdered with impunity.
However, it would be wrong to see this as an exclusive period of censorship; to a certain extent this breakdown in conviviality began in the 1980s when the government suppressed the JVP insurgency through media censorship, threats of criminal defamation, coupled with disappearances and deaths. It continued with the beginning of the civil war in 1983 and was also brutal under Rajapaksa’s predecessor, President Kumaratunge. Although this authoritarian mode of governance was established earlier, it became increasingly violent during the decade of Rajapaksa’s presidency.
It can be argued that the “systematic application of pain” (as Mbembe termed it) inflicted on the media, and the weakening of the body meant to protect them, the judiciary, was born out of the government’s fear. This appeared in different guises: the fear of personal, dynastic and political power being threatened; the fear of reportage lending added impetus to the Tamil Tigers’ (LTTE’s) war effort and finally the fear of human rights abuses being revealed and condemned by international powers including the UN. This article will assess the extent to which Mbembe’s theory of conviviality between the commandement (autocrat) and postcolonial subject (in this case journalists), can be applied to a Sri Lankan context.
In order to do this, this article presents two case studies: the murder of the Uthayan journalist, Selvarahj Rajivamam in 2007, as well as the disappearance of the Lanka E-News cartoonist and columnist, Prageeth Eknaligoda in 2010. Using respectively the example of a Tamil and Sinhalese journalist, it can be shown that brutality became increasingly indiscriminate across ethnic and religious divides. The government’s fear of losing its grip on the nation, created a culture of impunity that severely affected all branches of the media.
The fear of personal, dynastic and political power being threatened
With his election victory in 2005, Rajapaksa announced that he would be instating his three brothers in key political positions: Chamal as Minister of Ports and Aviation, Gotabaya as Secretary of Defence and Basil as his Personal Advisor. This dynastic approach reveals how politics became personal during this period. It also meant the President had even closer links to the military forces used to suppress journalists.
Mbembe writes of the “necessary familiarity and domesticity” in the convivial relationship between the autocrat and the media. However, this intimacy did not feature during the Rajapaksa years; instead the relationship was hostile. Therefore this aspect of Mbembe’s theory is too encompassing – although he uses the generic term, “the postcolony”, and declares “there is nothing specifically African about this”, a wariness needs to be employed in generalising across multiple countries and continents. He also writes that the ruler and ruled are “so entangled as to render both powerless”. During this decade, journalists were certainly “entangled” in a dangerous relationship with the State but this did not make both impotent – the government feared losing their power but were not powerless.
This is a crucial difference. As Head of State, Rajapaksa wielded a huge amount of sovereignty. In September 2010, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution eliminated checks on the President, and allowed him to become Commander in Chief of the armed forces and police, thus reinforcing his power further.
In The Promise of Politics, Hannah Arendt writes: “Out of this general powerlessness, fear arises, and from this fear come both the will of the tyrant to subdue all others and preparation of his subjects to endure domination”. Arendt alludes to the cyclical nature of fear but once again the concept of “general powerlessness” does not fit the Sri Lankan context. In fact, it was the huge amount of newly acquired power that sparked the government’s fear of losing it. Interestingly, before becoming President, Rajapaksa had a more convivial relationship with the media; Weerasundera writes that Kumaratunge named him the “reporter” because of his ability to strategically leak information to the press. However, this deteriorated substantially over his presidency lending to the idea that conviviality breaks down with an escalation in power. An example of this is the treatment of the Lanka E-News cartoonist, Prageeth Eknaligoda. He was a threat to the state for several reasons: his images undermined the government’s power; he supported the Opposition party under Sarath Fonseka for the 2010 election; and he accused the government of using chemical weapons in the war against the LTTE. The first two will be dealt with here.
In his analysis of political cartoons, Mbembe refers to Bakhtin when he quotes: “obscenity and the grotesque are parodies that undermine officialdom by showing how arbitrarily vulnerability is officialised” Although Eknaligoda’s cartoons are not explicitly “obscene” they hint of sinister practices below the surface. For example, in one of his cartoons that criticises the government’s control over the media, a bald, ageing, overweight politician stands looking up at a lingam-type fountain pen that dwarfs him, whilst surrounded by snapped nibs lying on the ground. On the surface, it suggests the government is controlling the only branch of the media that is thriving, whilst all of the others have been destroyed. The broken pens could also be symbols of the printing presses that were frequently attacked in government raids. However, there is also an implicit obscenity to the erect nature of the pen – the implication is that the government is drunk on a type of lustful, male power.
The same motif is repeated in another cartoon, “Media bowing to power” showing an ink pen yielding to a hugely tall Rajapaksa, the sharp nib dripping a drop of blood whilst facing directly at his private parts. The suggestion here is that Rajapaksa possesses an “obscene” amount of power reflected by his towering height. This fits with Mbembe’s concept of the body as “the principal locale of the idioms and fantasies used in depicting power”, as well as “the obesity of men in power” but conflicts with his concept of the “powerlessness” of the autocrat. The size of Rajapaksa’s feet is greatly exaggerated, suggesting his oppression of civil society; meanwhile, in comparison his head is a third of the size, hinting at the lack of intellect of the ruling party. Although the media has been made to bow to him, and has suffered (represented by the drop of blood), the precarious position of the sharp nib suggests it is also a threat. It is this level of parody that makes their “entanglement” clear and in accordance with Bakhtin, makes Rajapaksa appear momentarily “vulnerable.”
The weakening of the president in these cartoons is likely to have alerted the government’s attention and in 2007 sparked a round of threatening phone calls including one that said: “stop writing or we’ll cut your hands off”. Mbembe writes: “In transgressing taboos and constraints, citizens stress their preference for conviviality, they unpack officialese…and, often unwittingly tear apart the gods that autocrats…aspire to be”. It is true that Eknaligoda was “transgressing” from the line taken by State-owned media such as the Lake House newspapers, and that his work did threaten, at least in an imaginary sense, to “tear” apart the government’s pretences. Yet although there is humour in these cartoons, I would argue they go beyond a desire for “conviviality” – in fact, there is a deep-seated anger behind them. Rather than amicability, this is more in line with the “connivance” that Mbembe adds to his definition of conviviality towards the end of On the Postcolony. This idea fits the Sri Lankan context – that is not to say that Eknaligoda was conniving but his approach was serious and intent.
Coupled with his involvement in Sarath Fonseka’s opposition campaign, Eknaligoda was directly in line for “confrontation” with the government. In 2009, he began working on a documentary named “Secrets of Winning the War”, which glorifies the previous Army Commander, Fonseka, showing him visiting injured war victims, as well as raising his arm in salute whilst the Sri Lankan flag is being raised. It is provocative and openly undermining of the Rajapaksa family who is notably absent from the 8-minute propaganda piece. It was likely this, more than the cartoons that led to his first disappearance in 2009 due to the government’s fear of losing the election and therefore their dynastic power. He disappeared for the final time on January the 24th, 2010, just two weeks after the documentary was uploaded to YouTube, and two days before the presidential polls, making the political motivation behind his murder glaring.
The fear of Tamil reportage strengthening support from the diaspora
Aside from direct threats to power from journalists based in Colombo, the State became increasingly repressive of Tamil reporters working in the largely LTTE-controlled North and East of the country. This was because their reports conflicted with government-censored pieces relating to human rights abuses. Not only did this threaten the government’s national credibility but it also threatened to attract international attention from Tamil campaign groups and organisations such as Tamilnet (banned in Sri Lanka in 2007), which were active in keeping the Tamil diaspora informed. No doubt the government feared increased financial support for the LTTE through these channels. Savindri Perera queries this argument; she believes there is a danger in seeing the diaspora as monolithic. Perhaps in an effort to restore agency to Sri Lankan Tamils, she is critical of the assumption that “diaspora Tamils are…distinctive in the level of influence they brought to bear on the conduct and duration of the war”.
However, it is undoubtable that the diaspora had a huge bearing on the LTTE’s funding. In contrast to Perera, Brun and Nicholas write that the LTTE’s “ability to mobilise the diaspora in the transnational field was key” during these years. They also write of how the diaspora became a “threat to Sri Lankan sovereignty”, thus supporting the argument that the government was fearful. Meanwhile, Srirupa Roy’s words serve to emphasise how this fear is transferred so that the postcolonial nation-state becomes “an object of fear” and “draws upon the rhetorics and practices of violence”. The concept of fear is not addressed by Mbembe but is critical to the Sri Lankan context. It is particularly clear in the treatment of the Jaffna-based, Tamil language newspaper, Uthayan. A brief timeline of brutality highlights the oppression the paper faced: in 2006 Sathasivan Baskaran and Kumar Ranjith were shot dead; in 2007 Selvarahj Rajivamam was killed, in 2009 N.Vithyatharan, the editor was detained and in 2013 the printing press was set on fire.
Despite this level of persecution, the CPJ names Lasantha Wickramatunga, the murdered editor of the Sunday Leader, and the disappearance of Eknaligoda as “priority cases”. Yet it is a subjective use of the term because surely the missing Tamil journalists, who make up 11 of the 13 on their list of those murdered between 2005 and 2015, are equally important. Based on the minimal media coverage, it is interesting that Kannan Arunasalam chose to focus his 2014 documentary, News from Jaffna, on Rajivamam’s disappearance. In this respect, Arunasalam’s piece is activist, and with its tour of international film festivals, has attracted the diasporic attention the government aimed to avoid. Filming only a few months after the 2013 attack, an uncomfortable tension characterises the piece as he follows a young Uthayan journalist, Thadsa, as she writes an article about Rajivamam’s murder. Arunasalam explains: “I have also had to be strategic. Often it was better to tell stories from the past. In many ways, it was a form of self-censorship.”. Thadsa is used as the vehicle to explore the murder and also to show how repression continues after the war. Prem, the editor says, “Censorship and fear have spread all over the country…especially for Tamil journalists, everyday thinking we might be followed, attacked, killed”.
There is no doubt that during the final years of the war, the situation was more dangerous for Tamil journalists. Boronow explains how the Constitution’s Sinhalese bias legitimises their primacy while encouraging self-censorship among Tamils. However, being cautious did not protect journalists from the military apparatus that was in place, and those like Rajivamam that chose to write about Tamil disappearances were particularly vulnerable. In this relationship, there was no conviviality; Mbembe’s concept fails to account for this hostility, perhaps because his work is not centred on postcolonies experiencing civil war. Between 2005 and 2015 the CPJ figures show that 16 journalists and media assistants were murdered, of these 13 were Tamil; over the same period RSF data reveals that 20 were murdered, 14 of who were Tamil. The discrepancies here are likely due to the different methods adopted by the organisations – the CPJ only includes those they are “reasonably certain” are murdered in direct reprisal for their work, whereas the RSF includes those that are killed in connection with their journalistic work. Here the RSF terminology seems a little less rigid which could account for the greater classification. Interestingly, both websites record Rajivamam’s murder but not Eknaligoda’s because his case is unresolved; it is still argued by some members of the government that he is missing or alive in another country. These figures clearly show that Tamils faced added brutality, particularly in 2007 when Rajivamam was killed and the war was escalating. Weerasundera points out this correlation when he writes:
It did appear that wittingly or unwittingly, as the war in the north and east gathered momentum, so did the ‘other war’ against the media in the rest of the country – and the government naturally stood accused of stifling media freedom.
It is very unlikely this was “unwitting” on the part of the State – there is evidence to suggest the government had formed a “death squad” with the sole purpose of harassing the media. Weerasundera’s approach here is cautious – he is careful not to directly accuse the government. Instead he tentatively says, it “naturally stood accused.” More than any evidence assessed so far, this could be seen as an example of conviviality; in Mbembe’s terms “a familiarity” with those in power. It is possible, that this approach represents self-censorship on the author’s part as his book was published in Sri Lanka in 2011 when reprisals were still common. As the war continued, killings became more indiscriminate, highlighted by the increased number of Sinhalese journalists killed. Between 2005-2007 both the CPJ and RSF data (2017) reveals that one Sinhalese journalist was murdered, however between 2008-2009, a shorter period, the CPJ records that two were murdered. As well, as other ‘missing’ journalists such as Eknaligoda, this reveals there was an increase in hostility towards journalists in general, which began to move beyond ethnic discrimination. Perera explains this in her analysis of Rajapaksa’s victory speech in 2009: “now there were just two kinds of people: those who loved the land of their birth and those who did not”.
In order to exercise this climate of fear, born out of the government’s own anxiety about losing power in the North and East, a political and security apparatus was put in place that involved a close conflation of politics, the defence ministry and the law. During this decade, there was a gradual and persistent erosion of the justice system. The lack of protection available to journalists was one of the major reasons for the breakdown in conviviality. Article 15 of the Constitution permits restrictions in the interests of “national security” – this was the loophole that the politically appointed Supreme Court persistently used to criminalise legitimate speech. Furthermore, the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act was regularly invoked – the fact the government was so reactionary suggests it felt under threat from the Tamil media, partly because of the potential it had to generate support from the diaspora, and partly because of the risk of being found guilty of large-scale human rights abuses.
The fear of human rights abuses being revealed
Whilst Mbembe’s idea of “the logic of conviviality” fails to apply to the Rajapaksa era, his concept of the “simulacrum” does fit the context – the idea that the relationship between rulers and ruled imitates each other. As outlined, in the Sri Lankan case this revolved around fear. After the war ended in 2009, with the defeat of the LTTE, the government’s fear became centred on concealing human rights abuses – particularly the use of chemical weapons, rape used as a form of torture, the mass killing of civilians and the disappearance of journalists.
Tellingly, Arunasalam’s News from Jaffna has not been reviewed by the mainstream Sri Lankan media, most likely because when it was released in 2014, the Rajapaksa government was still in power. The legal restrictions facing papers would have prohibited them from publishing on such a sensitive topic as media disappearances. The social documentary brings censorship issues into the public sphere, offering a counter-narrative to the State’s denial that basic liberties were suppressed. Thadsa’s words parallel Arunsalam’s purpose of interrogating the government: “The guns are silent but it doesn’t change anything. We are still facing threats, feeling fear, but we are not going to give up”. This resolution, suggests a precarious collective power held by journalists; the same idea that Eknaligoda symbolised with the nib pointing at the President. There is a dual level of power involved – Thadsa has power in investigating Rajivamam’s murder, whilst Arunasalam has the greater power because as director, he is able to show the threat that both Thadsa and Rajivamam were under. In her discussion of ethics in Indian social documentaries, Kishore explores the unequal distribution of power between maker and subject. Here this is the case because Arunasalam does not face the same danger – as a diasporic Tamil, he has the option of flying back to the UK whereas Thadsa is far more vulnerable to reprisals, particularly working for one of the most persecuted papers in the country. Arunasalam admits this when he writes: “If I am honest, I am not sure whether I could take the risks that the young journalists in my film face on a daily basis”. An imbalance in privilege divides them, yet both subjects and filmmaker are in a vulnerable position –Thadsa and Prem because of the government threat and Arunasalam because of his personal commitment to the story in terms of investment, and his reputation within the Tamil community. His stance is clearly political, and rather than ‘othering’ the subjects, he presents them in a dignified way. In choosing to follow a female journalist and present her agency, he is also presenting a counter-narrative to the masculine state violence. The documentary acts as the voice of the living and deceased journalists of Jaffna, which the government tried so ruthlessly to silence.
Eknaligoda was involved in activism regarding a different human rights abuse, the use of chemical weapons, which the government sought to hide. Whether it was this, the demeaning cartoons, the involvement in Fonseka’s campaign or a conflation of all of these, it is clear that he went missing for antagonising the government. Due to the heightened power of the army, police and government at this time, Eknaligoda made himself particularly vulnerable. An article he wrote, “Ethnic War and Chemical Weapons”, is directly critical and the polemical tone is clear: “the government has something to hide. What is this secret?”. In the following conclusion to his condemnatory piece, Eknaligoda writes openly of the President’s biggest fear:
The government knows that the United Nations does not approve of annihilating a community in order to suppress an ethnic uprising. Concealing information regarding the use of chemical weapons must have been done in order to hide the truth from the United Nations.
This is a major accusation that makes the “powerful executive” appear vulnerable in the face of international condemnation. The fear that Eknaligoda alludes to here is one of the major reasons for the breakdown in conviviality between the media and the State – journalists such as Eknaligoda, Rajivamam and Arunasalam were directly confronting the official discourse that aimed “to maintain a fiction of a society devoid of conflict”. In their own way, they were “guid[ing], deceiv[ing] and toy[ing] with power instead of confronting it directly” (Ibid. p.90).
Mbembe’s theory of conviviality does not fit the Sri Lankan context during the authoritarian decade of the Rajapaksas’ rule – it does not allow for the relentless danger and violence faced by journalists although he does acknowledge that “close surveillance and repression”, the application of pain and “connivance” are linked to dissidence in the postcolony . It is also difficult to appreciate that the autocrat is as powerless as his subjects when he has the authority to give and take life in such an arbitrary way. Amantha Perera sums this up when he states: “Life today is so cheap it can be snapped away at the slightest provocation”. This authoritarianism derived from fear rather than powerlessness – both the State and media were caught in a vicious cycle. The government feared international reprisals whilst journalists feared government attacks and a lack of legal protection. No doubt twenty-six years of violent conflict contributed to the culture of impunity; the erosion of the rule of law; the conflation of the police and army into an interrogative unit that inflicted torture; and to the excessive power held by President Rajapaksa by the end of his presidency. For this reason, it is unsurprising that Mbembe’s concept of conviviality doesn’t parallel the Sri Lankan situation – he is not specifically writing about postcolonies experiencing civil war. This bred a heightened level of impunity and dissidence. The work of journalists such as Eknaligoda and Rajivamam posed a threat to the official discourse that the government was working so hard to control by its monopoly over major media bodies. Working for publications outside their direct control, as well as providing an alternative discourse, Lanka E-News and Uthayan, faced direct and coordinated attacks. In this respect, it is not too extreme to apply Mbembe’s belief that the postcolonial ruler has a tendency for the: “violent pursuit of wrongdoing to the point of shamelessness”. Now is the time to investigate disappearances and murders so that families can have some solace, the rule of law can be re-established and freedom of speech can return. With the change of government, the situation appears to be improving: according to the RSF (2017) no journalists were killed in 2016 and the island moved from 165 to 141 on the global freedom of press ranking. President Maithripala has promised a better future – already the enquiry into Eknaligoda’s death has been reopened, but there are still hundreds of uninvestigated cases including Rajivamam’s. Therefore it is clear there is much to be done to restore a healthy relationship of conviviality between the government, and the media: two cornerstones of democracy.
Editor’s Note: Also read “Blocked: RTI requests reveal process behind blocking of websites in Sri Lanka” and “Survivalist and Irrepressible: The Two Faces of the Sri Lankan Media“
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