Do Sri Lankan journalists have it better?

ON WEDNESDAY morning, there was a call from my mother. She was visibly shaken by the news about the kidnapping of a Tamil journalist. Her advice to me was: "Don’t write or do anything that will be seen by the government or the LTTE as hostile." Her second piece of advice was to cut down on my city roaming.

By B Y Ameen Izzadeen

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Published: Tue 5 Sep 2006, 8:39 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:46 PM

Nadarajah Kuruparan, news manager of the popular Sooriyan (Sun) FM channel, was abducted by a group of armed men just before dawn on Tuesday while he was going to work. My mother heard the news in the night and she knew it was not the first time a journalist had been kidnapped in Sri Lanka’s troubled history of ethnic conflict. A year ago, Dharmaratnam Sivaram, a journalist, intellectual and political activist, was kidnapped and later his body was found in the high security zone around the parliamentary complex. A few months ago, a young Sinhala journalist, who wrote about defence matters, was kidnapped and killed. So when the Suriyan FM journalist was kidnapped, everyone believed that his body would be found somewhere the following day. But the vigorous "Free Kuruparan" campaign carried out by the radio channel and media activists, coupled with international pressure, led to the journalist’s release on Wednesday. There are several conspiracy theories as to what happened and who his captors were.

It was at a time when Sri Lankan journalists were expressing concern about their security and the threat to the right to free speech that Yvonne Ridley, the journalist who was shot to fame by her adventures in the Taleban land in 2001, said the press in Sri Lanka enjoyed much more freedom than the Western media. When she said this at the Sri Lanka Press Institute at a luncheon meeting, her comments were greeted with a wry smile by most of the journalists present. Ridley, who was on a week-long lecture tour in Sri Lanka, was briefed on the kidnapping of the radio journalist and the general media scene in Sri Lanka. "Wherever it happens, all journalists must get together for the safety of our colleagues and also for the sake of the freedom of expression," she said.

But she shared with the Sri Lankan journalists what she believed and experienced. "The media in the West are under siege," she said, adding that the belief that the Western media were free was a myth. Her view did not surprise many of us because we know it is a norm of the new world order, which the US president George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are trying to establish.

A decade ago, Western media pundits who visited Sri Lanka on lecture tours preached us from a high moral pedestal, picked holes in our system and urged us to fight for more media freedom. But today, they are not in a position to do so. When Steve Coll, Pulitzer prize winner and former managing director of The Washington Post, conducted a workshop in Sri Lanka in July, he was on the defensive on the question of "balanced reporting". Asked to explain why The Washington Post gave front page splash for even one Israeli death while burying the news about scores of Palestinian deaths in an Israeli attack on an inside page, often a single column story, Mr Coll came out with an exposition that only underscored the US mainstream media’s bias towards the Jews and Israel.

Theorising about balanced reporting is one thing, but putting the theory into practice is totally another thing. The so-called embedded journalism practised by the Western media in Iraq amounts to going to bed with the US or British military and producing bastardised news or prostituting journalism. One wag said the embedded-types shall be called presstitutes. But Ridley, who is an Islamic feminist and anti-war activist, stands out as a journalist who rejected such practice. She sneaked into Afghanistan days before the United States and Britain unleashed their deadly arsenal on a country which had nothing to do with the 9/11 terror attacks. She was held captive for ten days by the Taleban.

Five years after her capture and release, Ridley —with plenty of sarcasm in her voice —tells her Sri Lankan audience, "Thank God, I was captured by the most evil, brutal regime in the world and not by the Americans!"

For her, the Taleban was not as evil as the West wants us to believe it to be. She charges that the Taleban was demonised by the Bush administration with the intention of turning the American public opinion in favour of the invasion of Afghanistan, for the American people would not permit the bombing and killing of "nice people".

She says when Bush called the Taleban an evil people who would not permit even children to fly kites, he was talking without any knowledge about what was happening in Afghanistan. Ridley said the explanation her Taleban captors gave her was they allowed kite-flying in countryside but barred it in town areas because the thin wire the children used to engage in kite battles had not only caused interruption to power supplies but also led to scores of deaths when the wire got entangled with power lines. The mainstream western media did not report the Taleban version.

Was Ridley glorifying her captors or was she suffering from the so-called Stockholm syndrome which made a captive to see her captors in favourable light? A majority of Sri Lankans would not forget the Taleban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues. Ridley rejected these charges and said she was not on a mission to sanitise the Taleban nor had she entertained any liking for them during her captivity. Regarding the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues, she said it was cultural vandalism unparalleled in human history, no doubt, but the matter should be seen in the context of the famine that was gripping Afghanistan then. What provoked the Taleban to destroy the statues, according to Ridley, was the indifference of the international community to the plight of a people. Yet little or nothing was said about this in the Western media, which appear to thrive on Islamophobia.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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