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!

Goodbye, Lasantha Wickramatunga – and long live Siribiris!

No discussion or debate...

Colombo General Cemetery: No discussion or debate...

This is a view of Colombo’s main cemetery, the final resting place for many residents of Sri Lanka’s capital and its suburbs. I took this photo less than a month ago, when I visited a grave on a quiet morning.

The late Bernard Soysa, a leading leftist politician and one time Minister of Science and Technology, once called it ‘the only place in Colombo where there is no discussion or debate’.

This afternoon, family, friends and many sorrowful admirers of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the courageous Sri Lankan newspaper editor who was brutally slain last week in broad daylight, took him there — and left him behind amidst the quiet company.

But not before making a solemn pledge. All thinking and freedom-loving people would continue to resist sinister attempts to turn the rest of Sri Lanka into a sterile zombieland where there is no discussion and debate. In other words, rolling out the cemetery to cover the rest of the island.

The last laugh?

The last laugh?

Silencing Lasantha was the clear aim of cowardly gunmen who intercepted him on his way to work and shot him at pointblank. Tarzie Vittachi, the first Lankan newspaper editor to be forced into exile 50 years ago for freely expressing his views on politically sensitive issues, once called such attacks ‘censorship by murder’. (Alas, since Tarzie uttered those words in 1990, shooting the messenger has become increasingly common in Sri Lanka.)

Rex de Silva, the first editor that Lasantha worked for (at the now defunct Sun newspaper) in the late 1970s, has just cautioned that Lasantha’s murder is the beginning of ‘the sound of silence’ for the press in Sri Lanka. 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?

And would they remember for all time Edmund Burke’s timeless words: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”?

How many would actually read, absorb and heed the deeply moving words of Lasantha’s one last editorial, copies of which were distributed at the cemetery and the religious service before that?

That editorial, which appeared in The Sunday Leader on 11 January 2009, embodies the best of Lasantha Wickrematunga’s liberal, secular and democratic views.

As I wrote in another tribute published today by Himal Southasian and Media Helping Media: “I have no idea which one – or several – of his team members actually penned this ‘Last Editorial’, but it reads authentic Lasantha all over: passionate and accommodating, liberal yet uncompromising on what he held dear. I can’t discern the slightest difference in style.”

“And there lies our hope: while Lasantha at 51 lies fallen by bullets, his spirit and passion are out there, continuing his life’s mission. That seems a good measure of the institutional legacy he leaves behind. If investigative journalism were a bug, the man has already infected at least a few of his team members…”

Read the full story of The Sunday Leader team’s courage under fire

Read The Sunday Leader‘s tribute to its founding editor on 11 January 2009: Goodbye Lasantha

Much has been written and broadcast in the past 100 or so hours since Lasantha’s journey was brutally cut short by as-yet-unidentified goons who have no respect for the public interest or have no clue how democracies sustain public discussion and debate. I’m sure more will be written – some in outrage and others in reflection – in the coming days and weeks.

puncturing egos for 40 years

Siribiris (left): puncturing egos for 40 years

As we leave Lasantha to his rest, I remember Siribiris. For those unfamiliar with the name, Siribiris is an iconic cartoon character created by Camillus Perera, a veteran Sri Lankan political cartoonist who has been in the business as long as I have been alive.
Siribiris represents Everyman, who is repeatedly hoodwinked and taken for granted by assorted politicians and businessmen who prosper at the common man’s expense. The only way poor, unempowered Siribiris can get back at them is to puncture their egos and ridicule them at every turn. And boy, does he excel in that!

It’s no surprise that Lasantha – the bête noire of shady politicians and crooked tycoons – was very fond of Siribiris. Perhaps he saw his own life’s work as extending that of Siribiris in the complex world of the 21st century. That he did it with aplomb and gusto – and had great fun doing it, sometimes tongue stuck out at his adversaries – will be part of Lasantha’s enduring legacy. (As his last editorial reminded us, in 15 years of investigative journalism on a weekly basis, no one has successfully sued the newspaper for defamation or damages.)

So Goodbye, Lasantha. And Long live Siribiris!

Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Courtesy: Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka