While The Sunday Leader is encouraged to see WikiLeaks picking up where the Western media fell off, we wonder where the leakers are in our own island.
America, the country exposed by the latest leaks, is already one of the most transparent in the world. What of Sri Lanka, where so much goes on behind closed doors, or worse, everyone in the Colombo elite knows who is giving and whose is taking.
Sri Lanka is no stranger to the jungle telegraph, the unseen newswire that tells the shocking truth, mixed with a healthy leavening of interesting lies. Our public news, however, is often a set of glorified press releases and sacrificial lambs. In America the press has fallen over in their desire for access and corporate profits, but the Sri Lankan media remains down out of desire for physical and corporate survival.
What WikiLeaks has shown, however, is that a powerful well-sourced story can shake even a powerful government like the US. In an appearance at the Galle Literary Festival, Tehelka founder Tarun Tejpal said that, in paraphrase, the medium is not as important as the story. That the story will spread across media with a force of its own. Julian Assange’s experiment with WikiLeaks has shown this to be true.
In Sri Lanka, however, we don’t have powerful stories. We just have a thin layer of news on top of a bigger layer of entertainment on top of, ultimately, propaganda and government PR. We also have a state censorship so powerful that it has become as invisible and pervasive as air. Editors censor journalists, parents censor children, friends censor friends, and writers censor themselves. Sources won’t go on record, even over trivial matters, because the media has shown that it cannot even defend itself.
The government’s censorship work is done. After the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, imprisonment and public trial of J. S. Tissainayagam and public assaults on Sirasa and The Sunday Leader, anyone who hasn’t got the message is surely dumb.
This is where we, the media, need help from you, the media. For all the media circus surrounding Julian Assange, the real lion in the cage is Pfc. Bradley Manning. This 22 year old soldier provided the leak that exposed the murder of civilians in Iraq and the cavalier duplicity of US foreign policy in general. He now languishes in jail while Assange at least has freedom between airports. He was a fool to talk about his exploits, but unbelievably brave to blow the whistle on America’s war machine.
Sri Lanka needs more regular heroes like him. For every violent and corrupt minister, there are 10 body guards. For every backroom deal, there is someone bringing the tea. These people need to start speaking up, in the public interest. The only issue, however, is whether the public is actually interested.
Sri Lankans have a remarkable propensity for scandal, perhaps because democracy is not part of our founding myth as it is in America. Our (Sinhala) founding myth is essentially the story of someone like Malaka Silva, a King’s son who was so violent and rapacious that he was expelled from India entirely. That is the first King of Lanka, whose grandfather is emblazoned on our flag.
There is a hope, however, that a story powerful enough could awaken the people’s common sense and affect change. The Sunday Leader labours on under that hope, and there remain hundreds of people who — when faced with injustice that directly affects them — wish that there was some force that could make invisible abuses seen.
What stops people is fear, and the sense that they have nowhere to go. In Sri Lanka, the most profitable newspapers won’t run stories that might endanger their real business — printing classifieds and government cheques. The highest circulation papers are owned by the government. The Sunday Leader is there, but has been hit by fire, bullets and court cases so much that it inspires most sources to hang up the phone.
WikiLeaks, however, has broken that fear globally. US papers have not called out the US out of unsaid bias. For example, the New York Times still calls waterboarding ‘enhanced interrogation’ when done by American and torture when done by the Khmer Rouge. ‘Journalists’ on Fox News can say ‘all terrorists are Muslim’ without either being fact-checked or called out for racism, but someone speaking out against Israel can lose their jobs. WikiLeaks has gone around those biases and presented that media with documented facts they couldn’t deny, and stories they couldn’t ignore.
In the same way, any Sri Lankan can blow the whistle on this train before it goes off the rails. If the documents are good, the story will stick and the fearful media will — in the confidence of the herd — have to cover it. In this atmosphere sources cannot come out, but that does not mean they can’t come forward. The Sunday Leader remains unafraid and will run powerful stories if you have documents to send. Simply email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a secure exchange. Also, once the WikiLeaks site traffic drops a little, anyone can submit information there. The story of media is similar to warfare. As some warriors acquire swords, the others acquire shields. It’s a constant back and forth.
In the same way, as media acquired books, the powerful enacted bans. As media developed newspapers, the powerful found ways to seal them in courts or seduce them with access and wealth. Through all this one force, however, is constant. You can’t keep a good story down. You can’t stop the thirst for justice, you can only mask it for a while.
This is a lesson that WikiLeaks is teaching the world, and we hope that it will reach Sri Lankan ears. Not in the form of what the American Ambassador says about us, but in about what brave Sri Lankans could tell us about ourselves. About the casual corruption and abuse that’s known on the jungle telegraph but never reaches the city edition. These are stories that people need to know. These are stories that can change things for the better.
So please, if you see something going wrong, don’t keep it to yourself. Send it to us, send it to WikiLeaks, just send it out. It may not be safe to speak anymore, but —- if you’re very careful — it is safe to leak. If you see something bad happening, don’t be silent. Just be discreet.
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