Wanted: ‘Magic Mirrors’ for a Land of the Blind…

Last chance...?

Here’s a winning idea for a new business venture in these lean times: make an always-agreeable ‘magic’ mirror — and the vane and wicked will beat a path to your door.

Well, at least half the politicians in Sri Lanka would. They’d rather not see their true selves on any mirror.

The magic mirror idea was popularised many years ago by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, whose wicked and vain queen had an unusual mirror that talked back, each time she asked: ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?’.

The queen wasn’t looking for honest answers; she just wanted to hear she was always the prettiest and fairest in the land. (All competition – real and imagined – was dealt with brutally.)

Little has changed, even in this 21st Century. We may not have too many monarchs left in the world, but our uncrowned rulers can be equally vain and ruthless. They are obsessed with self-aggrandizing sycophancy – they’d only tolerate magic mirrors that totally boost their egos.

If I seem to be preoccupied with mirrors, that’s nothing to do with my own vanity. In this digital age, the mirror is still a pretty good metaphor for the media industry that I have been part of, in one way or another, for over 20 years. At its very basic, the media are expected to reflect our society and our times.

But some people don’t like what they see on a true mirror. In 2009, we saw a spate of mirror smashing or media bashing in Sri Lanka. It started on 6 January, when the studio of the Maharaja Television/Broadcasting Network (MTV/MBC, popularly known as Sirasa Group) was attacked by armed gunmen who almost blew up the country’s most popular private broadcast organisation. On 8 January, exactly a year ago today, Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of The Sunday Leader, was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle as he drove to work in suburban Colombo.

Sirasa & Lasantha: Refused to be magic mirrors

One year later, both crimes remain unsolved. They have joined a long list of crimes against journalists and media organisations in Sri Lanka, most of which have never led to any prosecution of the perpetrators.

As Reporters Without Borders noted in a statement this week: “The emotion and anger have not gone away in the year since this famous Sri Lankan journalist’s death. The anger is being sustained by the government’s flagrant obstruction of the investigation. Lasantha Wickrematunge’s name and memory will not disappear and, in that sense, those who were behind his murder made a mistake.”

Commenting on the MTV/MBC (Sirasa) attack, I described the typical reaction of the mirror-bashers: “…if you don’t like what you see in the mirror – which is what media is to society – just kick it, shatter it and hammer it into dust so that it won’t reflect anymore. Destroy all the mirrors of the land, and we’ll finally be the fairest and prettiest in the whole world. That seems to be the perverse logic that fuels attacks of this nature.”

Rex de Silva, the first editor that Lasantha worked for in the late 1970s cautioned that Lasantha’s murder was the beginning of ‘the sound of silence’ for the press in Sri Lanka. As I asked on the day of Lasantha’s emotionally-charged funeral: “Can this sound of silence be shattered by the silent, unarmed majority of liberal, peace-loving Lankans who were represented at the funeral service and the Colombo cemetery today?”

Owing to these and other threats, pressures and intimidation during the year, Sri Lanka was ranked 162nd out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. This was the worst ranking of any democratic country. See RSF website section on Sri Lanka.

Back to mirrors. While the true mirrors were getting bashed, those who played being ‘magic mirrors’ have done well for themselves (and are probably laughing all the way to their banks). But that’s not a phenomenon confined to the little island of Sri Lanka. A good part of the US Media did the same under the hawkish Bush Administration, which prompted the cartoon below.

It’s not just ‘Dubya’ who is addicted to such agreeable mirrors. Indeed, for many modern-day rulers, an essential trapping of power involves surrounding themselves with spin doctors, press commissioners and other manipulators or manufacturers of image. In mature democracies, there are certain checks and balances which usually guard against the worst excesses (but there are notable exceptions – look at Italy!).

In immature, fragile or pseudo democracies, mirrors obey the laws of physics (optics) at grave risk to themselves. If you want proof, just talk to the staff of Sirasa or The Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka…

Groundviews.org: One year later: A murder unresolved, a government unashamed

Nov 2009 blog post: We need more reflective mirrors in the media!

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