Sri Lanka Must Allow Dissent, Relax Curbs on Media

Nobody is above law. Yes, even journalists. The rules of the game are same for everyone in a democratic setting. Yet, under an unwritten convention, the journalists enjoy some leeway which is not available to others. That is because they are an essential pillar of democracy. It is their job to hold a mirror to the society and the government; advice and caution all those who matter for the well being of the people.

That is why the sentence awarded to Tamil journalist Jeyaprakasan Sittappalam Thissanayagam (45) is disturbing, to say the least. This is not the first time that journalists in Sri Lanka have found themselves at the receiving end of the law and the governmental authority. Where Thissanayagam’s case differs is that charges have been framed against him and he had been made to stand trial.

Was it necessary to invoke the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in his case? Could he not be tried under the ‘routine’ laws since he is not a terrorist, even if he is believed to be a Tiger sympathizer? An outsider, much less an Indian, cannot sit on judgment in these matters. Even on the quantum of punishment, which is 20 – long years of hard labour for Thissanayagam. Nevertheless, it is tempting to comment on two aspects of the case – one relates to LTTE funding his web site and the other to his two ‘provocative’ articles, which the government says were aimed at inciting ethnic divide.

Certainly, it can be no body’s case that Tigers financed Thissanayagam alone. Theirs was a very broad based enterprise. It is a matter of public knowledge. To counter Tigers’ cyber media campaign, several web sites have come up with ‘patronage’ of several quarters. I don’t know whether the ‘counter’ campaign was effective. But what surprises is the fact that there was (and is no visible effort to ‘jam’ the Tigers’ website. It is not a big deal in a manner of speaking.

Any internet site has to take a domain name and get it registered. It has to be hosted on a server. The IP address is traceable easily even if it’s in deep forests. If a Tiger site was allowed to allow by a way of a grand strategy, then it is a different matter. The Tamilnet has always been first with Tigers’ success stories. Often it helped to get a hang of what was happening inside Wanni.

In any operational area, the police and bureaucracy have a tendency to treat the journalists as enemies if they don’t pay heed to them alone. From Pakistan to India and from Indonesia to Malaysia, this is the same story; the authorities have a tendency to look at everything from their own perspective. ‘Either you are with us or against us’, they keep reminding the journos in particular, who by their nature of very work, feel restless unless they give play to the other side of the story. Because news papers are not government gazettes.

Dissent is the very life of democracy. There must be a free opportunity to differ from the official view. This freedom of expression and the freedom of the Press are what differentiate a democratic society from the ‘homeland’ hawked by megalomaniac Velupillai Prabhakaran. He had neither allowed dissent nor tolerated anyone who even remotely did not see eye-to-eye with him. In the Tigerland, punishment for differing with the boss was swift from a firing squad. Velupillai is no role model to anyone either in Sri Lanka or anywhere else in the world. This is, indeed, a positive development at the end of three-decade long Tiger mania that had gripped the world.

India cannot advice Sri Lanka not to stifle dissent. What right India has to tender an advice when the troubles of Jaswant Singh, a former foreign minister, are there for everyone to see? His book on Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan has been banned in Gujarat, a state ruled by Bharatiya Janata Party, with which Jaswant was associated for three decades. And he stands expelled from the party. He has since knocked at the apex court against the ban on the book.

Banning a book or a periodical may appear as an administrative action. But in reality it is a political decision. It has political costs too. For this very reason, three other states ruled by BJP – Himachal Pradesh Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have not followed the Gujarat lead. So the Jaswant book is freely available in India; it has roaring sales across the border in Pakistan.

The point is more democracy and more democracy is the answer to problems in a developing country. Not curbs on dissent. The end of the Wanni War should therefore signal a welcome to democratic means to resolve the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka. There are no set solutions that can be replicated with ease. A ‘locally relevant’ or ‘adopted’ template will materialize if a beginning is made in all seriousness. As of now, one gets the impression that search for a Tamil template has taken a back seat as focus has shifted to much larger issues revolving round executive presidency.

Abolition of Jayewardene legacy is long overdue. But it cannot be achieved in a single stroke whatever be the level and intensity of the commitment of the leadership. The country will have to go through the motions of Presidential and Parliamentary elections. The constitution can be amended only if the treasury benches enjoy two-thirds majority. It is a time consuming process.

Whether the Jayewardene model outlived its utility is not the issue any longer. It was not true to the French model it had copied. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is committed to abolish it. So are the big and small parties. Put differently, there is a consensus against centralized power. The next logical step should therefore be devolution of power to the provinces. Yes, with or without the 13th amendment and with or without 13th amendment plus.