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Thursday, July 25, 2024

On the importance of countering false political narratives – Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

In the wake of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday attacks, we have one (Muslim) Minister confessing to calling the Army Commander to ‘inquire into’ the fate of a Muslim suspect arrested following the Easter Sunday attacks and another (Sinhala) Minister being so bold as to transport Sinhalese rioters attacking Muslim shops in Kurunegala from one police station to another where they were given bail. Both acts are equally condemnatory. But the media focus is on the first and not on the second. Why is this?

Irrationality is in the air

The problem of bypassing the Rule of Law posed by these two incidents, (one being an attempt and the other amounting to a success), captures in a nutshell precisely what is wrong with our law enforcement and media. The National Human Rights Commission’s succinct finding as conveyed to the acting Inspector General of Police (IGP) following a recent fact-finding mission to areas affected by anti-Muslim communal violence was that ‘equal protection of the law had been denied to affected citizens and also to the public at large.’ The law had not been allowed to take its proper course. The Commission called upon law enforcement authorities to strictly act against instigators of communal violence and ‘ensure that no undue political or other external interventions are tolerated.’

These reminders are timely, going beyond the specific context in which they were made. Yet and quite tangibly so, irrationality is in the air. The xenophobes and the zealots in Sri Lanka have invaded the public space.We see spokesmen of every lunatic fringe outfit in town being given media time to expound their favourite fantasies,as unashamedly and un-apologetically racist as these may be. A case in point is the return to an old exhortation by one spirited fanatic this week that Sinhalese mothers should give birth to more and more children to prevent hordes of Thawheed extremists from invading the Dhammadeepa.

And the very mention of ‘Thawheed’ suffices to push even generally sober citizens to (metaphorically) run for cover exclaiming in horror, notwithstanding repeated attempts by persevering scholars to explain that the term only symbolizes quite un-alarmingly, the sense of ‘oneness with God’ or ‘unification’ in other words. It is simply that this word has been used by jihadists to dignify themselves and their various organisational covers even as they act in a manner that puts every basic tenet of that spiritual injunction to shame. But this call to sanity is to no avail.

Hysteria over Sri Lanka’s NTJ ‘goni billa’

In particular, the now banned National Thawheed Jamath (NTJ) has assumed all the dreaded characteristics of the proverbial ‘goni billa’ in Sri Lanka or the bogeyman carrying a sack commonly evoked by parents to scare recalcitrant children into obedience. As local level and municipal politicians of both the UNP and the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Party are arrested for membership of the NTJ, some possessing swords, knives, petrol bombs and quantities of uniforms similar to those worn by army officers, the questioning of professionals allegedly having links to the NTJ is routinely reported. There is, in that sense, much of the same hysteria associated with the name ‘Bin Laden’ in the United States following the 2001 September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda on the twin towers in New York and elsewhere.

Sri Lanka’s media has played a considerable role in promoting this hysteria. Though some newspapers in the Sinhala media retained their customary notoriety in this regard, it is the electronic media that takes the prize for communal reporting. One good example was the hype surrounding the discoveries of swords in Muslim houses during raids immediately following the Easter Sunday attacks. The taking into custody of swords found in one or two mosques (which certainly raises questions) aside, the rest of these discoveries in Muslim households were represented as if out of the common way.

But one would surmise that a great number of Sinhala households in Sri Lanka’s villages would also possess one or two swords, which is quite run of the mill as it were. However the terrifying sight of twenty and more swords laid out methodically for the roving eye of the television camera to infer that all these came from one source and that there was undoubtedly evil intent at play, hinted at unabashed communal propaganda. There are other instances of subverted reportage that raises serious questions of ethics. For example, press releases by the police on arrests made during a particular day are reproduced quoting the ethnicity of the suspect as Muslim but when Sinhalese are arrested, as was the case of the suspect apprehended in connection with the concealment of hand grenades near a school in Badureliya, the ethnicity is concealed.

Diversion of attention from core issues

This is a classic example of manipulation of news on a grand, even fantastic scale. It is fear mongering with no apparent fear of consequences. Journalists indulging in the same should be brought before the penal law, even under stringent emergency regulations notwithstanding our natural distaste in urging its use in these contexts. Nonetheless, scandalous, incendiary reporting must be dealt with firmly. In the alternative, the push-back by the Government may reverse all the gains in the past few decades. We are already hearing talk of criminal defamation being brought back into the statute books to counter media excesses.

Most importantly, there is a danger in this enveloping media hysteria as it diverts attention from important issues that should be at the front and centre of public attention. Despite the banning of the NTJ ‘goni billa’ along with the Jamathei Milathu Ibrahim (JMI), Muslim elders have themselves warned that this does not comprise the sum total of the threat. Fundamentalism has been evidenced by other organisations that still operate freely and deploy their writ in other areas with force such as in the resistance to reform of laws and practices relating to women.

Indeed for years, the East’s Muslim politicians, protected by various power centres in Colombo, were responsible for encouraging and instigating the growth of communal enclaves, reacted to adversely not only by the Sinhalese but also by Tamils. Numerous tugs of war took place, administrative or political as the case may be, where Tamil villages bordered Muslim villages. Eastern centres of regional influence such as Kattankudy grew reclusively into themselves with home-grown radicals exerting knock-on impact in areas as far away as Mawanella to the profound displeasure of Muslims elsewhere. These were the seeds that finally destructively flowered in the form of the jihadist cell carrying out the Easter Sunday attacks.

This media circus must be halted

As Sri Lanka faces communal hysteria to an extent that is unprecedented even during war times, addressing these issues with restraint is important. For that, the media circus of shrill propaganda that is in full swing now must be halted. And as reiterated in these column spaces, framing the crisis entirely within the context of Sri Lanka’s majoritarian violence as directed against the minorities is profoundly disrespectful of the truth.

Militant Sinhala-Buddhist action by the BBS and others may have enabled a breeding site for Muslim youth to turn disaffected in a familiar vicious cycle. But as the radical trajectory of the NTJ and the specific targeting of Catholics and Christian on Easter Sunday tells us, that is not the whole truth here. Framing the narrative in this way to protect political interests can only continue to be counter-productive.

It is time that these collective cautions are taken to heart.

(Sunday Times)


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