Friday, March 26, 2010

Sri Lanka: Attack over ‘offensive’ music video revives old fears

By Adithya Alles - Anger against the popular rap and hip-hop singer Akon, whose music video has footage of bikini-clad women dancing near a Buddha statue, may have been just a ruse used in this week’s attack on a private media house in Sri Lanka, media advocates fear.

Some 200 people attacked and stoned the head office of MTV and Sirasa, two of the country’s popular privately owned television and radio networks, on Monday, in the wake of anger over the video of a song by the U.S.-based Akon, which has now been cancelled. MTV was one of the concert promoters.

While the attackers may have indicated that their anger was caused by the music video, media activists say that the attack has simply added to a long list of intimidation and harassment faced by journalists in this South Asian island nation.

A poster left behind by the mob gave a clue as to the motive behind the attack -- or at least what those behind it wanted others to think had ignited their wrath. Written in clearly legible Sinhala, it said: ‘Don’t bring Akon to Sri Lanka’. Akon, a Senegalese American, was to perform in Sri Lanka in April.

Anger over the singer’s arrival in Sri Lanka grew in the last week over a music video for the song ‘Sexy Bitch’, which includes two women in bikinis dancing in front of a white Buddha statue.

Over 60 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people are Buddhists and what they see as sacrilege easily generates anger.

Two Facebook groups against the Akon show have sprung up, getting more than 12,000 members. However, there was no indication that the protest campaign was going to turn violent. In fact, some group members have posted messages urging others not to allow extremists to take over their peaceful campaign.

A similar incident in 2004, though without the involvement of any Facebook groups, had ended in disastrous circumstances.

In December 2004, public anger broke out when Indian superstar Shahruk Khan was to hold a concert in Colombo that coincided with the death anniversary of a beloved Buddhist monk. Despite the protests, the concert went ahead and toward the end, a hand grenade explosion left two concertgoers dead. The culprits have never been indentified.

The Free Media Movement (FMM), the country’s foremost media rights group, believes that the mob attack was not a random event. "This cannot be taken as an isolated act. It is part and parcel of what has been taking place in the recent past," FMM spokesman Sunil Jayasekera said in an interview.

Others say that the row over the Akon concert provided an effective veil for anyone who wanted to target the Sirasa broadcasting house, which has been known for its independent reporting during the civil war between the state and separatist Tamil rebels in the country.

"This (Akon) concert was just an excuse for this attack. There had been concerns over its safety even before this controversy over the concert," said Susil Kidelepitiya, a former news director at Sirasa. Kidelepitiya is contesting the April general election as part of the opposition United National Party.

Media activists say that the long list of intimidations, arrests, assaults, abduction and even unsolved murders has already made journalists look over their shoulders all the time.

"This is not the first time MTV/Sirasa or their journalists have been attacked. Their studios were set on fire in January 2009. No one knows who did that," Jayasekera said. The FMM official says the government needs to take action to assure the media community that it can safely do its job.

After that 2009 attack, Reporters Without Borders had said: "The attack seems to be because its coverage was not ‘patriotic’ enough. The network is one of the country’s few, and very popular, independent news sources. The incident recalls the November 2007 attack on the Leader Publication printing works, for which nobody has been punished."

Reporters Without Borders had also noted that the MTV/Sirasa network has been criticised "for not giving enough air-time to recent government victories over the (Tamil Tiger) rebels," which the government defeated militarily last year.

Officials of the Working Journalists’ Association agree that authorities have shown a lukewarm attitude in investigating such attacks.

"If there is a sense that these kinds of acts are tolerated, it does not augur well for the future," Lasantha Ruhunge, the association secretary, told IPS. "Then more and more journalists will not feel safe enough to do their job -- which would mean that less and less information would reach the public."

This week’s attack had all the makings of a well laid-out plan rather than a spontaneous outburst of public anger.

The mob appeared in front of the office of Capital Maharaja, the holding company of MTV and Sirasa TV located here in the capital Colombo, without much fanfare. They arrived in two hired buses, alighted and started pelting the building with stones, clubs and anything they could grab hold of.

As stones rained on the glass facade of the Maharaja building, those inside retaliated. Some hurled the stones back at the attackers while others unwound a fire hose and opened the tap on the mob. A while later, police arrived at the scene with riot gear. The attackers dispersed and 16 were taken into custody, according to police. All were released on bail a day later.

The mob may have been doused before it could turn ugly, but it left the staff at Maharaja in shock. Staffers were seen wandering in the compound speaking on their mobile phones, gazing at the crowd that had gathered after the mob attack. They said that no one had the faintest idea of an attack before the stones started banging against the windows .

"Bringing down an artist (Akon) who has no respect for Buddhism cannot be condoned, but so is this act. Going and stoning the office is not the answer," Hegodda Vippassi Thero, a Buddhist monk, told IPS. He had urged organisers to reconsider going ahead with the concert in view of the controversial video.

Whether the mob really wanted to take the anti-Akon sentiment to a violent level will never be known, but it has achieved what was written on the poster it left behind. The Sri Lankan government has said that it would not be issuing a visa to Akon because he was "defaming Buddhism".

In a statement, Akon said: "I would never set out to offend or desecrate anyone's religion or religious beliefs."

All that, however, does not address the worries of the FMM and the Working Journalists’ Association – that being the messenger makes the media very much a target in this country.

© Inter Press Service

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