Wednesday, July 27, 2016

In the name of sanity and reason

Malinda Seneviratne has an eye for comment. He knows the political. He can debate and win and what’s more, without resorting to emotion and rhetoric. That’s rare. Consequently it’s difficult to imagine him playing second fiddle to anyone, politician or ideologue. He has his views and I don’t agree with many of them, but the fact of the matter is that he's no “lapdog”. And why? Because of the one weapon he has at his disposal whenever someone has an issue with what he’s written: reason.

A few days ago, Ranil Wickremesinghe lambasted certain journalists. He noted they’d been in the pay of the previous regime and threatened to reveal their names. This is of course not the first time and certainly not the last time he’s done such a thing. This article, however, is not about Mr Wickremesinghe or his gripe with journalists. It’s about something else.

Malinda wrote on the Prime Minister’s rant. Again, not the first time. If you peruse the articles he wrote to “The Island”, the now defunct Sunday “Lakbima”, the “Daily News”, and “The Nation”, you’ll come across so many instances where he has criticised the Prime Minister and understand why: because he knows Wickremesinghe’s CV and disagrees with his stances on issues Malinda clearly is a nationalist on. That’s not to say Mr Wickremesinghe is not a nationalist (he is), but then again there are degrees of nationalism and Malinda is ahead of most politicians (the populists of the previous regime included) on that count. This article, therefore, is about Malinda Seneviratne.

I started reading Malinda in “The Nation”. No, not when he was Editor. He was, I remember, a contributor to a weekly political column. The first thing that struck me was his nationalist thrust, something I hadn’t come across in those who wrote to English newspapers (not that there weren’t others of course). He writes with a kind of clarity his opponents can’t match. I suppose clarity tends to attract rubbish paraded as counterargument, which explains why, over the years, he’s been at the receiving end of vitriol and third-rate, below the belt comments by those who have no clue about his stances.

He has been called a Mahinda loyalist, stooge, sycophant, and shill. He has been vilified, lambasted, defamed, and debased. A lesser writer would have given up. He has not. Speaks volumes about the man, as it does about those who choose to slander and in other ways abuse him with words.

Let me come out with it. For years, he pointed out flaws in Constitutional provisions, guarantees, and amendments. For years, he argued for reform. For years, he supported the nation, not Mahinda Rajapaksa. For years, he objected to intimidation and dissected dissent. For years, he made it clear that the end of war was not the beginning of peace. For years, all this was ignored and he got a lovely title: chauvinist.

As such it’s predictable that when he calls a spade a spade with respect to the Prime Minister’s tirades, those who have an axe to grind with him will howl “Hypocrite!” The hypocrite-tag is, however, both unwarranted and uncalled for, not (only) because Malinda doesn’t deserve it, but also because using that on the dissident tends to concede power and ego to the powers that be. I’m sure everyone knows this.

No, I don’t agree with him on everything (as I pointed out before). I have issues with some of his positions. We don’t see eye to eye on certain matters. But I know one thing: he is less politically coloured than I am. More to the point, he is less politically coloured than any of us. Hardly reason for censure, wouldn’t you agree?

Moving on.

We were promised change in 2015. Change, they say, comes in different shades. Some would say point at relative merits. Others would push for perfection. I think it’s safe to say, as Tisaranee Gunasekara has, that this regime has done everything it can to be marginally superior in terms of corruption, nepotism, and venality to the Rajapaksa Regime. Telling.

Forget all this, though. Ask yourself: does the revolution end with the changing of the guard or does it live forever? “Revolution is Dissent!” Warren Beatty (acting as John Reed, the American journalist who covered the 1917 upheaval in Russia) exclaims in his film Reds. True. That’s why dissent is predicated on critique. Healthy, necessary critique. The sort that survives regime-change.

Now some will of course argue that there’s a line between critique and sycophancy. Who decides that line, though? The government? The Editor’s Guild? Malinda Seneviratne? Your neighbour? Then there’s another argument: freedom must go with responsibility. Again, who decides the parameters of that responsibility? Didn’t the Rajapaksa Regime try to do that? Didn’t they fail? And didn’t those who bring up these arguments now use to howl (by their keyboards and computer screens) whenever Rajapaksa “blanked” the media?

2015 did more than change a regime, folks. It undressed a lot of people. Those who clamoured for revolution and bayed for blood in their rush to “get” good governance became silent. Their rebellion used to be for ABSOLUTE change. Right now though, I am willing to bet, they’ll probably be content with RELATIVE merits. A totally different destination, ladies and gentleman.

True, these are still early days. We don’t really know this government’s position on the media. We can cut them some slack. At the same time though, we can guess. And we can have the likes of Malinda help us guess.

As for the Prime Minister’s tirades, they remind me of what the late S. L. Gunasekara once said. He was speaking at a seminar on the media. The year was 1997. The speaker before him was Ranil Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe had waxed eloquent on media freedom. The UNP was in the Opposition then. And two plus two equals four.

Here’s what S. L. said: "I think the press are somewhat paranoid when they think that all politicians hate them and want to destroy them. I disagree entirely. When the SLFP was in opposition, it loved the media in the same manner as UNP loves it now, with the enduring passion of a Romeo for his Juliet."

That was S. L. Spoke his mind. Didn’t suffer mediocrity. To the point. Brash. And politically colourless. Like Malinda.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com