Monday, June 13, 2011

Why do governments kill journalists?

Photo courtesy:

Dr.Kumar David | Lakbima News

There are journalists I like and some I dislike; there are those I agree with and many I profoundly disagree with. In recent years, across the globe, the more courageous ones have become an endangered species while sycophants have prospered.

When governments change the sycophants of one emperor are tarred and feathered to accommodate their replacements; that’s the future beckoning the current set of toadies too. My interest today however is in those members of the fourth estate who are a threatened species. I could not have imagined a decade ago that I would speak up on behalf of journalists because my recollection is of seedy types creeping in and out of hole-in-the wall watering joints and digging dirt on quite ordinary peccadilloes like fornication or pissing on lampposts late at night. But things have changed in this country and elsewhere. Why? I think there are two reasons.

The ubiquitous spread, imagery and influence of modern communication has made the fourth estate prominent and the tribe is in no way inclined to surrender this influence on opinion making. Secondly, authoritarian regimes have become belligerent violators of human rights, or violations are more publicized than previously, or ethnic conflicts and uprisings a la the Arab Spring have become widespread. All this has made journalists who think long term, and those who have quit prostituting their pens to the state, a troublesome lot. To repeat my two reasons; there is a technical one that new gadgets have made journalists a danger to killer states, and secondly, the political dynamics that, for a variety of reasons, killer states have hyper activated in recent decades.

International killings

What prompted this piece is the murder of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad and dumping his body 250km away. Shahzad has often exposed that the ISI and the Pakistan Army are in cahoots with jihadists, which exposé‚ in the aftermath of the revelation that bin Laden lived under the nose and shielded by these agencies, and then a fortnight ago, the daring Pakistani Taliban penetration of the Mehran military facility, sealed his death warrant. The case nicely corroborates the two reasons I adverted to, and it is but the tip of an iceberg of what Pakistani journalists know about dirty tricks and two-timing by the nation’s military and intelligence agencies. Such boldness had to be squashed because the establishment is reeling; the Lasantha effect you might say. Then there is the larger fact that Pakistan is breaking apart and recent events have heightened and sharpened old sores that have festered and turned prurient over time; this is the Darusman-Jayalalitha effect, in that sudden happenstance brings a whole shoddy contraption to light. The AAA-tripod (Allah-America-Army) is on the boil and scorching Pakistan’s very survival - I give it five years more. Phew! Sri Lanka’s illness is not terminal; a strong electoral laxative and purge is all we need to turn the corner.

The government of Pakistan is about as potent as a eunuch; president, prime minister, cabinet, ruling party and opposition are castrated catamites of the military. President Zardari was dispatched to Russia and Prime Minister Gilani to China by the military brass to weep on shoulders and proffer posteriors so far reserved exclusively for American use. The offers were declined and the said gentlemen sent back home and told to wash off the ISI and army’s jihadist slime. GoP is a nobody and in this it is different from the Sri Lankan case. GoP, very likely, is uninvolved in abduction and assassination of journalists; over here we have a more hands-on scenario. The Prageeth syndrome, where revealing the sexual misconduct of power brokers provokes a mafia style response, is also I believe a Sri Lankan special.

International practice in dealing with truculent journalists in authoritarian states varies considerably. In China they are pretty decent sorts; they just throw you in prison without trial and beat you up a bit. But Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and many Arab and African countries are dangerous places for journalists, unless regime-sycophants; a breed not uncommon among our journalists. I accept and recognize other’s right to bum the regime if they so wish; my complaint is that those who report abuses of state power or expose kleptocrats are likely to have their life spans abridged. Good examples are Lanka’s Lasantha and Prageeth, irrespective of whether you dislike their politics, and Anna Politkovskaya in Russia (one of over 200 killed since 1993 in Russia). Anna was more than a newspaper person and doubly vulnerable as a courageous and forthright human rights campaigner. Her exposé‚ of what Putin’s satraps and armies were doing in Chechnya spelt her death, probably sanctioned at the highest levels of the Russian state. Lakbima News readers are an intelligent lot; I don’t need to draw explicit parallels.

The tide is changing

Thankfully however, I see the beginnings of a change in the tide in this country. No, my crystal ball can’t actually promise you anything yet, but if you have your ears close to the ground the drumbeat seems to be altering. A sixth sense tells me that the government is with its back to the wall and its tail between its hind legs, meaning, it can’t afford new clashes for which reason journalists may now be less in danger of white vans assassins’ implements than before. We have to thank external and internal developments for this. First, Darusman-Jayalalitha have got Colombo into a funk. Nearly the whole international community, and probably more than half the people at home, in their heart-of-hearts, know that Darusman is factually correct. Delhi is wary of a showdown with Jayalalitha; so Colombo has also lost its greatest defender and guardian abroad. You may yet say “a wounded wild beast is more dangerous,” true, but a frightened feral creature may avoid picking more fights unless it is quite rabid. GoSL is showing all the signs of being in retreat on the international stage.

Internal trends are no less significant. The Tamils were always hostile and after losing the war they turned against Rajapaksa even more, but the regime had enough mass backing to deal with this lot. Next it was the university population (first students, now teaching staff); then the capitalist class grouching about bad governance and ubiquitous graft and nepotism; and now the anti-government mood has spread to the working class. The government still retains its base in the Sinhala petty-bourgeois which makes up well over half the population. I have in mind not only its rural Sinhala base and the deep-south but also the Dharmapala Belt of Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness surrounding the metropolis (Maharagama, Dehiwala, Kotte, Gampaha and somewhat beyond, except the Catholics north of Colombo). Where my crystal ball remains murky is that it cannot say if this base is also eroding, at least in part, from its rapturous state of post-war adulation of the Rajapaksa brothers. Things have a way of impacting on each other, so a shift is likely, but we have to watch for some months more for definitive signs.

© Lakbima News

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