Mr. Minister, my name is Sunanda Deshapriya. I am not a terrorist.
Photo courtesy JDS
An Open Letter to Minister Keheliya Rambukwella
Mr. Minister, I don’t know whether you have seen the film called ‘my name is Khan. In it, the main character played by popular actor Shah Rukh Khan Repeats the lines ‘My name is Khan. I am not a terrorist’ at different points in the film, in order to affirm his innocence. I too am about to tell you a similar story. ‘My name is Sunanda Deshapriya. I am not a terrorist’. This is my theme.
The story of ‘My name is Khan’ centres around the harassment a Muslim man with the name of Khan has to endure following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, USA. These attacks on the Twin Towers generated both fear and anger in the minds of the American people. Some extremist groups tried to unleash the feelings of anger against ordinary Muslim people living in the US. The film’s narrative is set against this background.
You are trying to do the same thing today. You are trying to use the fear and anger generated in the minds of the Sinhala people because of the brutality of the LTTE against those of us who have been advocating respect for human rights in Sri Lanka, including respect for the rights of the Tamil people of our country. When I say ‘you’ I do not only mean you as an individual, Mr. Minister. I include the entire gamut of people who do your bidding, including those media persons who sing your praises with no shame.
Do you know what baseless and venomous lies the media under your control has spread about me in the past few weeks? Have either you or your acolytes ever tried to behave in accordance with universally accepted media ethics and asked me for my comments on your revelations? Isn’t your talk about media ethics therefore to be understood as mere political hogwash?
In the film, Sameer, the young son of Khan and his wife Mandira is brutally killed by a gang of boys of his own age. This act of savagery became possible only because the feelings of anger and hatred that I described earlier had been let loose in their community. There can be nobody who watches this film whose heart and mind are not captivated by the tragedy of the child’s murder and the subsequent events. In the past weeks I too have read newspaper reports about your children. How disturbed you would have been after reading such stories? Can you imagine how many deaths my family, my children, have gone through as a result of the vicious campaign being carried out against me by you and the media that serves your will?
I fervently hope that one day you will be able to think about others as you think about yourself; this is the preaching of the Lord Buddha.
You talk over and over again about media ethics. You order news websites to be shut down because they are acting without respect for these ethics. You warn us that you will bring about a Code of Ethics for the Media that will be very special to Sri Lanka.
You are levelling charges against a group of journalists, accusing them of receiving money from the LTTE and carrying out a traitor’s agenda. You say that these media persons and journalists are now living abroad. You say they cannot be prosecuted because the Sri Lankan law does not permit it.
Mr. Minister, while your media people broadcast your words on this subject, they project images of me at various media freedom demonstrations on the screen behind them. With respect to which Code of Ethics are you displaying my photograph to illustrate baseless allegations? You say that it is because you cannot prosecute these persons who have obtained money from the LTTE under existing Sri Lankan law that you are not revealing their names. But your media institutions carry my photograph as an illustration to this statement. What is the intention behind this? Is it NOT to implicate me in your statement? Why is it that your acolytes have permission to do what you don’t dare to do? It must be that you think you do not need to be bound by any ethical standards because you are in power.
You advise the media about the use of language. Yet the media under your control continue to use the vilest forms of hate speech against me, shamelessly and without any proof to back up whatever they are saying. You reward these acolytes of yours with awards of media excellence.
Is it your theory and your practice that only your opponents should be held responsible for respecting media ethics? Is this how you devalue your own use of the media?
Wasn’t it your media that repeatedly broadcast the canard that at the session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September last year, the Maldivian President said that ‘Sunanda Deshapriya is a traitor to the nation’ even after it had been proved to be false and inaccurate? Where were the media ethics that you preach, then? The first ethical consideration of any journalist or media person is that of respect for the truth. Doesn’t the media under your control break this principle every day? Is the proverb ‘Practise what you preach’ not applicable to Ministers of this government?
Since a while ago I have publicly challenged your government to prove that I have received even one cent from the LTTE. The truth of the matter is that neither you nor your government nor anyone else holds on shred of evidence to prove this. If your government is capable of indicting members of the military and the Police for having accepted money from the LTTE, why should we believe that you are not able to do the same in the case of journalists who have received money from the LTTE? I accuse you of trying to unleash the same forces of extremism that Khan and Mandira faced on the murder of their son Sameer against me and all others working for the defence of human rights and media freedom in Sri Lanka today.
It is no secret that I hold an extremely critical view of the Rajapakse regime. As Media Minister, you are obliged to defend my right to hold those views. Instead, you are engaged in taking away that space from us and terrorizing us. Please remember that the right to hold dissenting views is one of ethical bases of media freedom.
On ITN, in the ‘Athulanthaya’ (Interior) programme, you said something ridiculous: That because you cannot take these charges before the law, lacking evidence, you are instead placing them before the people. What does this mean? Why must you take information that has no basis and therefore would not stand scrutiny in a court of law into the public arena? Doesn’t this show us that you are trying to build a hate campaign against me in the minds of the people?
In June 2009, award-winning journalist and Secretary of the Working Journalists’ Association, Poddala Jayantha, was abducted and brutally assaulted because of a similar hate campaign. You who are levelling the most absurd of charges against media persons fighting for media freedom today, what have you done to bring the perpetrators of the attack on Jayantha to justice, almost three years after the attack? Tell us if there is even one example where you and your government have brought any of those responsible for killing, beating and harassing journalists and media persons to justice.
As Media Minister, you are raising against unfounded allegations against us. But the allegations we raise against you as media freedom fighters are completely factual.
When cartoonist and media activist Prageeth Eknaligoda was abducted three years ago, it is you who confidently told us that he would return in two weeks time. Referring to Lalith and Kugan, two activists who disappeared from Jaffna a few months ago, you said that they had not in fact disappeared and that they were still alive. When Uthayan Editor Kuhanathan was brutally assaulted and almost killed, all you could say was that as the Minister for Media, when a journalist was assaulted, you could only pay him a visit in hospital.
Did you see the photographic records of the gangsters armed with poles and clubs who gathered in front of the Fort Railway Station to prevent the Black January protest demonstration from taking place? Did you see the reports that said they received packed lunches for free? Why are the restrictions and forms of censorship applied to media organizations not valid for supporters of the regime? It is you who should respond to these questions, as the Minister responsible for the Media. Where, alas, are your ethics now?
I would be remiss if I did not remind you here that we have a far longer list of violations and omissions of justice to lay at your door.
In November 2010, you said that you needed a clear definition of who is a journalist and a media person; now, in January 2012, you say that in fact you do not know who is a journalist any longer. Isn’t this amazing?
Look at what you say at the media briefings you summon week after week, about media freedom, about media ethics and about journalists who receive money from the LTTE and even you will feel sorry for yourself.
Let us debate about politics and about ideological differences. In this month of January that we have declared to be a ‘Black January’, let us debate about whether journalists have been murdered or not, about whether media institutions have been set on fire or not, and about whether on some of these occasions, the true perpetrators of these crimes have been left free while others have been falsely arrested or not. I defend your right to criticize my politics. But you have no right to build a hate campaign against me based on untruth. Neither you nor your cohorts have the right to label me as a terrorist when you have nothing to prove your case.