20 January 2019
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The return of the exile

sunanda 0Activist, journalist and blogger, Sunanda Deshapriya talks to Dilrukshi Handunnetti on journalism in exile, digital platforms of advocacy, media reforms and the crucial need for public service media


Driven into self exile in January 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the brutal slaying of The Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, it is his first visit to the country of origin in six long years. At the time of departure, Sunanda Deshapriya was labelled a 'traitor' along with the likes of Wickremetunge, for voicing democratic dissent. "We felt there was no option but to leave," he says.

Much has changed and much hasn't changed in Sri Lanka in six years, claims Deshapriya, who feels a sense of disconnect, upon return. Somewhere somehow, the years of separation had created a gulf that makes him feel less integrated into his own society. "That feeling is a shared one," he muses.

Being away, on the other hand, has given him the opportunity to critically look at Sri Lanka and review its developments. His first acknowledgment is of the broadening of democratic space post January 8 and some positive changes in the media landscape, which he considers a 'point of departure.'

"But I see partisan trends continue. What is gone is the suppression and oppression. Clearly, nobody threatens journalists or have them killed and assaulted.

That's a huge change for a country that had lived through serious intimidation and violence against journalists. The next step is the systemic changes that come through policies, mechanisms and practices."

Deshapriya also finds that economic control over the media, a continued practice, 'policed by respective owners.' "This kind of ownership control with heavy political leanings has got crystallized in the past few years," he notes.

What Deshapriya regrets is the media's own inability to retain some of the January 8 momentum by influencing the industry. "Change must come from within ourselves. With the change in the national leadership, some democratic space was created. It allowed the media industry an opportunity to leapfrog. That's still missing."

Public service media
A strong believer of public service media, Deshapriya claims best results can be achieved - despite existing drawbacks - through the reformation of the State-owned media institutions into public service models.

"That's where the ownership control does not exist unlike in the privately-owned media. There may be strong management control but that's different to economic power being applied over media houses. It is only the JVP that does not have the backing of a large media house, all others do."

Learning from successful global models, Deshpariya insists that quality journalism can flourish in State-owned media. "It must happen, using the space created in January. The best course of action is to either convert the existing State-owned media or the creation of dedicated public service media outlets, modelled on existing institutions elsewhere. From the servile to a service model," he quips.

What he does regret is the changing of gear with the announcement of a crucial August 17 general election that has pushed the discussion on media reforms to the political backburner. In that lost opportunity, he also finds media behaviour changing, reflecting the political urgency that is natural during a crucial election, regretfully sliding back to old repulsive media culture. "There are hardly any progressively steps taken to push the envelope, using the newly discovered space."

Dehsapriya says that "journalists must redefine their own role, within the restrictions of the media landscape, both political and economic.

One has to be impartial in crisis. During peace time, it is easy to remain calm. This is the acid test for the Sri Lankan media: to demonstrate their ability to withstand pressures and be professional, converting the January 8 success to full-blown opportunity for positive change."

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He recalls seeds of public service broadcasting being sewn by the late Tilak Jayaratne through the inspirational Uva Community Radio.

There were other models like the Ruhuna and Rajarata broadcasters, which had local leadership and local flavour. "While the tags may differ, we need models like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and National Public Radio(NPR).

Public-owned and public- led should be the model. That's the future." In the scramble to enter parliament in August and secure majorities, Deshapriya says that nobody makes a public commitment to "introduce a public service media."

The next government, he insists, should ensure a strong commitment to fostering public service media, make them sustainable and guarantee their independence.

The conversion of the existing to a new model admittedly is debilitated by the State-owned media's lack of credibility, after years of being abusively used as 'disgraceful political tools.'

This trust deficit, he says, is being overcome in small ways but needs to be strengthened. "State-owned media should reflect diversity and give voice to public concerns, beyond the mere political.

The problem is, people do not believe that that State- owned media are a platform for public discussion and engagement."

Beyond the models, the State must also investment in good journalism. "The political conditions are much better. There is great scope, only if they want to try. Political cohabitation has made it difficult to practice ugly party politics, all of which should help us reach the next level: a committed, professional, public-spirited media."

The public revulsion also stems from the use of State media not merely for political propaganda but largely as platforms of hate speech and serious polarization. There had been instances when they contributed to the incitement of violence against activists and dissident voices.

Deshapriya strongly believes that as much as it is difficult to control information, so is opinion. With the advent of social media, people freely express themselves online, their rage and outrage.

"What is important to bear in mind is not the inability to control expression, even when it is hate speech. What is alarming is the lack of outcry against such hate speech. In other places, when hate speech ends as tweets, there are thousands of tweets opposing that. That social engagement is missing in Sri Lanka, though it happens in pockets. That's not enough.

Opinion makers must immediately engage and express dissent. That contributes to media diversity and continued dialogue."

Recalling a recent incident, he said a key campaigner for the former president, Wimal Weerawansa, was spewing out venom in a publicly broadcast speech. "He said, he did not advocate attacking those who opposed Mahinda Rajapaksa but only wanted the public to throw hot water on those who criticized him. It's outrageous. His comment is alarming but what is more alarming is the lack of public response to that."

He recalls: "As a child, growing up in a coastal village in the South, I used to hear a lot of hate speech. That had changed drastically. Now hate speech is practiced by the literate. It has lost its value as a social practice but become a campaign tool and mainstreamed by politicians."

His departure from the island also had its links to being a target of continuous hate speech and branding him as a 'terrorist.' Sunanda Deshapriya admits that the level of hate speech in Sri Lanka a few years ago, not only drove people into self exile but brought physical harm to people.

Despite all that, Deshapriya remained engaged from where he made a new home, in Geneva. "It is tragic that activists were compelled to leave. To me, it is also tragic to find them abandoning their engagement with their country of origin. Even when driven out, we could mainstream ideas and help broaden democratic space."

Vicious cycle
"Once exiled, it's as if you end up in some kind of cold storage. There is freedom, a new place, new languages to learn, challenges of a different kind and material comfort.

Yet, there is something missing. Exiled people often wonder why they need to be engaged with a native place that drove them out."

Six years later, Deshapriya is able to clinically analyze the situation of the exiled Sri Lankan media. Many have their own issues to deal with, families, a new culture and a society, new jobs and a complete overhaul. These adjustments take time and support.

Deshapriya feels it is a matter of choice for those who have left. "Personally, I still feel like an outsider. It is difficult to come back in six years and pick up the threads of my scattered life. I don't feel I belong and it is difficult to explain sometimes.

"I am growing old and there is less worry for me. But for young people, it is doubly difficult. They have to consider uprooting their families, come back to old jobs or look for new jobs.

They have to reconsider their safety issues and worry about the possibility of security risks, if things change suddenly. They need more social security in order to return, not just a conducive backdrop. Look at those who returned from Nepal. It is difficult for them to find their own place in Sri Lankan society again."

Dealing with trauma
Deshapriya is of the view that journalists often discount their own trauma, having lived covered a decades-long conflict and lived through it. "In Sri Lanka, we hardly acknowledge this.

As a society, we need to heal. This is also the reason who we fail to tolerate dissent in a civilized manner and call for blood.

We are maimed and bleeding and we need to heal. If the cacophony of noises is a result of a society in crisis and suffering from trauma, so is the deafening silence, which is paralyzing."

Healing is a process, and one in which both family and friends have huge roles to play. After years, families have become different, children have gown and their attitudes have altered. Families have evolved, in the absence of other family members, he says.

"There is a need for tolerance and offering space. To step back and given that space to acclimatize and find our feet. It is also possible to feel rejected by families and friends. When trauma is borne in separation, this can happen" he adds.

"I feel I have a right to return but there is that loss of connectivity. I carry within me, this hollow feeling, the sense of an outcast, an alien. I felt the same way when I went to jail in 1971.

Of course in the prime of my youth, I felt I was a hero. I find a parallel, 40 years later. Those who left, feel that we made a sacrifice by giving up our right to live here, by raising our voices until being driven out. But I feel that the greatest sacrifice was made by those who stayed and continued to work within the restricted space."

Considering the decision to return a personal one, Deshapriya says that what should not be an option is making a contribution to enhance democratic space in one's home country."

One can remain engaged from their new found homes. For me, leaving was a mistake, even though the stakes were truly high at that time."

There are lessons learnt from being an exiled journalist. In hindsight, he feels there should be scholarships or some other learning opportunity offered for a limited period, offered on the basis of return.

In sending people out, countries that are geographically and culturally close should be the first option.

"Sinhala journalists have never left this country en masse like this before. Sinhalese have been migrating since 1940s but that's actual migration, not exile.

The Tamil community has been migrating but this is a first for Sinhalese to go as asylum seekers."

People of course are free to live anywhere. In the migration of activists, the situation in Myanmar offers some examples, he notes. The exiled journalists have operated from different places and had never left their engagement. Post 2012, they have begun to return and are taking their place in Burmese society, Dehsapriya notes.

'That engagement is missing here. We need to demonstrate our desire to contribute to the democratization of our country of birth. Instead, we appear to have cut our umbilical cord, firmly."

Courtesy - http://www.sundayobserver.lk/

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