Night of Ideas in Colombo: Panel on Freedom of Expression and Cartooning

L to R - Kianoush Ramezani, Nalaka Gunawardene, Gihan de Chickera at Night of Ideas in Colombo, 26 January 2017

L to R – Kianoush Ramezani, Nalaka Gunawardene, Gihan de Chickera at Night of Ideas in Colombo, 26 January 2017

On 26 January 2017, the Alliance Française de Kotte with the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka presented the first ever “Night of Ideas” held in Colombo. During that event, participants were invited to engage in discussions on ‘‘A World in common – Freedom of Expression (FOE)” in the presence of French and Sri Lankan cartoonists, journalists and intellectuals.

I was part of the panel that also included: Kianoush Ramezani, Founder and President of United Sketches (Paris), an Iranian artist and activist living and working in Paris since 2009 as a political refugee; and Gihan de Chickera, Political cartoonist at the Daily Mirror newspaper in Sri Lanka. The panel was moderated by Amal Jayasinghe, bureau chief of Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency.

Human Rights Lawyer and activist J C Weliamuna opens the Night of Ideas

Human Rights Lawyer and activist J C Weliamuna opens the Night of Ideas in Colombo, 26 January 2017

In my opening remarks, I paid a special tribute to Sri Lanka’s cartoonists and satirists who provided a rare outlet for political expression during the Rajapaksa regime’s Decade of Darkness (2005-2014).

I referred to my 2010 essay, titled ‘When making fun is no laughing matter’ where I had highlighted this vital aspect of FOE. Here is the gist of it:

A useful barometer of FOE and media freedom in a given society is the level of satire that prevails. Satire and parody are important forms of political commentary that rely on blurring the line between factual reporting and creative license to scorn and ridicule public figures.

Political satire is nothing new: it has been around for centuries, making fun of kings, emperors, popes and generals. Over time, satire has manifested in many oral, literary and theatrical traditions. In recent decades, satire has evolved into its own distinctive genre in print, on the airwaves and online.

Satire offers an effective – though not always fail-safe – cover for taking on authoritarian regimes that are intolerant of criticism, leave alone any dissent. No wonder the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc inspired so much black humour.

This particular dimension to political satire and caricature that isn’t widely appreciated in liberal democracies where freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed.

In immature democracies and autocracies, critical journalists and their editors take many risks in the line of work. When direct criticism becomes highly hazardous, satire and parody become important — and sometimes the only – ways for journalists get around draconian laws, stifling media regulations or trigger-happy goon squads…

Little wonder, then, that some of Sri Lanka’s sharpest political commentary is found in satire columns and cartoons. Much of what passes for political analysis in the media is actually gossip.

A good summary of our panel discussion reported by Daily News, 30 January 2017

Part of the audience for Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Part of the audience for Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Audience engages the panel during Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Audience engages the panel during Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Night of Ideas in Colombo - promotional brochure

Night of Ideas in Colombo – promotional brochure

 

News wrapped in laughter: Is this the future of current affairs journalism?

Who can follow these footsteps?

Who can follow these footsteps?

In an excellent op ed essay assessing the lasting value and meaning of Walter Cronkite to the world of journalism, Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times on 26 July 2009:

“What matters about Cronkite is that he knew when to stop being reassuring Uncle Walter and to challenge those who betrayed his audience’s trust. He had the guts to confront not only those in power but his own bosses. Given the American press’s catastrophe of our own day — its failure to unmask and often even to question the White House propaganda campaign that plunged us into Iraq — these attributes are as timely as ever.

“That’s why the past week’s debate about whether there could ever again be a father-figure anchor with Cronkite’s everyman looks and sonorous delivery is an escapist parlor game. What matters is content, not style. The real question is this: How many of those with similarly exalted perches in the news media today — and those perches, however diminished, still do exist in the multichannel digital age — will speak truth to power when the country is on the line? This journalistic responsibility cannot be outsourced to Comedy Central and Jon Stewart.”

I cannot agree more with the premise and arguments in this essay, which is well worth a careful, slow read by everyone, everywhere who cares for good journalism — either as practitioners or consumers (and in this media saturated age, don’t we all fall into one or both categories?).

At the same time, without detracting from the value of — and the crying need for — investigative, reflective and ‘serious’ journalism, I believe comedy and especially political satire play a key role today in analysing and critiquing politicians, businessmen and others whose decisions and actions impact public policy and public life.

Anchor, anchor, burning bright...

Anchor, anchor, burning bright...

Political satire is nothing new: it’s been around for as long as organised government. Over the centuries, it has manifested in many oral, literary or theatrical traditions, some more memorable and enduring – such as Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm. And for over a century, political cartoonists have been doing it with brilliant economy of words – as I have said more than once on this blog, they are among the finest social philosophers of our times.

In the age of electronic media, it’s only natural that the tradition of satire thrives on the airwaves and online. In fact, there is a rich and diverse offering of politically sensitive and/or active satire in the mainstream and online media that we can consider it a genre of its own. Some of it is so clever, authentic and appealing that we might momentarily forget that we are experiencing a work of satire.
Purists might decry this blurring of traditional demarcations between information, commentary and entertainment — but does that really matter?

When we survey the media and cultural scenes in our globalised world, we see things getting hopelessly entangled and mixed up everywhere. Nothing is quite what they seem – or claim – to be anymore. Content that is explicitly labelled as pure news and current affairs is looking more and more like entertainment. My friend Kunda Dixit, who edits the Nepali Times, says this is inevitable when the same mega corporations own both cartoon networks and news channels.

No news is good news -- for whom?

No news is good news -- for whom?

If the mainstream news organisations don’t quite live up to our expectations to gather, analyse and reflect on the current affairs of the day, we should at least be grateful that some comedians are stepping into that void. We must welcome, celebrate and wish their tribe would increase!

The rise and rise of political satire is also being chronicled and analysed. A new book tells us why we now have to take satire TV seriously — it turns out to be the bearer of the democratic spirit for the post-broadcast age. Titled Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, the book is co-edited by Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey Jones and Ethan Thompson (NYU Press, April 2009).

Here’s the blurb introducing the book: “Satirical TV has become mandatory viewing for citizens wishing to make sense of the bizarre contemporary state of political life. Shifts in industry economics and audience tastes have re-made television comedy, once considered a wasteland of escapist humor, into what is arguably the most popular source of political critique. From fake news and pundit shows to animated sitcoms and mash-up videos, satire has become an important avenue for processing politics in informative and entertaining ways, and satire TV is now its own thriving, viable television genre. Satire TV examines what happens when comedy becomes political, and politics become funny.”

The book contains a series of original essays focus on a range of popular shows, from The Daily Show to South Park, Da Ali G Show to The Colbert Report, The Boondocks to Saturday Night Live, Lil’ Bush to Chappelle’s Show, along with Internet D.I.Y. satire and essays on British and Canadian satire. “They all offer insights into what today’s class of satire tells us about the current state of politics, of television, of citizenship, all the while suggesting what satire adds to the political realm that news and documentaries cannot.”

Let me summarise the news so far. Intentionally or otherwise, some news anchors and politicians are increasingly behaving like comedians. Meanwhile, a few professional comedians are talking serious politics and current affairs in a genre of media that is growing in popularity by the day.

Are you confused yet? Well, get used to it. This is the shape of things to come.

In such topsy-turvy times, we need more Jon Stewarts to puncture the bloated egos and images of not only elected and other public officials, but also of our larger-than-life news anchors, editors and media tycoons. I would any day have conscientious comedians doubling as social and political commentators than suffer shallow, glib newscasters trying to be entertainers. That’s what you call laughing for a good cause.

Parting thought: There is another dimension to satirising the news in immature democracies as well as in outright autocracies where media freedoms are suppressed or denied. When open dissent is akin to signing your own death warrant, and investigative journalists risk their lives on a daily basis, satire and comedy becomes an important, creative – and often the only – way to comment on matters of public interest. It’s how public-spirited journalists and their courageous publishers get around draconian laws, stifling regulations and trigger-happy goon squads. This is precisely what is happening right now in countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka, and it’s certainly no laughing matter. More about this soon.

Backgrounder:

The news as you never saw it before...

The news as you never saw it before...

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is an American late night satirical television programme, airing on Comedy Central, a cable/satellite channel. The half-hour long show is presented as a (fake) newscast. In their own words, the Daily Show team “bring you the news like you’ve never seen it before — unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy.” It “takes a reality-based look at news, trends, pop culture, current events, politics, sports and entertainment with an alternative point of view.”

The show premiered in July 1996, and was initially hosted by Craig Kilborn. Jon Stewart took over as host in January 1999, and made it more strongly focused on politics. In each show, anchorman Jon Stewart and his team of correspondents, comment on the day’s stories, employing actual news footage, taped field pieces, in-studio guests and on-the-spot coverage of important news events.

This is what the Wikipedia says: “The program has grown in popularity since Jon Stewart took over hosting, with organizations such as the Pew Research Center claiming that it has become a primary source of news for many young people, an assertion the show’s staff have repeatedly rejected. Critics, including series co-creator Lizz Winstead, have chastised Stewart for not conducting hard-hitting enough interviews with his political guests, some of whom he may have previously lampooned in other segments; while others have criticized the show as having a liberal bias. Stewart and other Daily Show writers have responded to both criticisms by saying that they do not have any journalistic responsibility and that as comedians their only duty is to provide entertainment.”

OK, The Daily Show may not be intentionally serious journalism, anymore than mainstream news channels are intentionally funny. But a significant number of American TV viewers and TV critics, as well as media researchers, have found the analysis and commentary to be highly insightful and incisive. It has won many awards including an Emmy and Peabody Award. It’s been on the cover of Newsweek for its outstanding elections coverage and serious journalism. It’s not to be laughed off easily.

After the Last Newspaper...

After the Last Newspaper...