Terrifying rise of intolerance, violence and fear

| by Shanie


“You took away all the oceans and all the room. You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it. Where did it get you? Nowhere. You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.

(November 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was one of Russia’s leading poets. In 1934, he was arrested and exiled for three years, first to a small town in the Urals, and then to the provincial town of Veronezh, where he wrote the above poem. In 1938, he was charged again and banished to a labour camp. The reason for his arrest was a poem called the Stalin Epigram which he first read out to a small group of literary friends. The poem was a bitter satire on Stalin:

“We are living, but can’t feel the land where we stay, More than ten steps away you can’t hear what we say,
But if people would talk on occasion They would mention the Kremlin Caucasian.
But around him a crowd of thin-necked henchmen,
And he plays with the services of these half-men, Some are whistling, some meowing, some sniffing,

He’s alone booming, poking and whiffing.
He is forging his rules and decrees like horseshoes –
Into groins, into foreheads, in eyes and eyebrows.
Every killing for him is delight, And Ossetian torso is wide.”
Mandelstam, openly anti-establishment and critical of Stalin’s totalitarian methods, was however rehabilitated and exonerated of all his charges, first by Khrushchev in 1956 and later by Gorbachev in 1987. The story of Mandelstam’s arrest, conviction, exile and subsequent exoneration of all charges laid against him show that dissent cannot be suppressed for all time. Indeed, Mandelstam was honoured in 1977 when a minor plant discovered by a Soviet astronomer was named after him. No such honour was bestowed on his tormentor.
Tolerance of dissent
In 1992, the Civil Rights Movement initiated a series of booklets on the value of dissent. In introducing the series, the CRM stated that the idea of the project originated in the context of the appalling violence that had then disfigured Sri Lanka, accompanied by a terrifying rise of intolerance. The priority was the need to keep certain civil values alive, and to promote understanding not only of the right to dissent, but also of the intrinsic value of dissent. Recognising the value of dissent meant valuing the tolerance of dissent. In themselves, individual expressions of dissent may often be of little worth; they will include the outpourings of the crank and the crackpot – or what seem to be such by the standards of the day. But the degree to which dissent is tolerated reflects the health of society and ensures that it has within it the potential for progress.
While recognizing that freedom of expression is often contravened by those exercising state power, the CRM stated that threats to the free exchange of ideas did not come from governments alone. They could and do come from other sources too; from various social and political groups, from communal and individual attitudes, even from majority public opinion. Indeed the suppression of opposing views by the state is often with the support of society at large; governments in many ways reflect society’s prejudices. However – and this was the point of that series of booklets on the value of dissent – intolerance from whatever source it came was dangerous to society, and should be identified and opposed.
Blocking of Websites
It is in this context that the government’s move to deny access to some web sites needs to be condemned as being undemocratic, unacceptable and dangerous for the future of our country. This columnist has regularly been accessing at least one of the blocked websites, the Sri Lanka Guardian. That website provided a wide variety of opinion, some supportive of government actions but more opposing them. But it provided welcome alternate points of view, none of which could by any standard be termed libelous. In fact, most contributors to Sri Lanka Guardian have been well known journalists and academics. Another website that has been blocked is apparently one newly set up by the UNP. This columnist has not accessed that website but blocking the website of the principal opposition party in the country is totally unacceptable. It is a misuse of authority for political gain. At every Election, national or local government, state media resources, among other state resources, were misused in favour of the ruling coalition. (Under the earlier election law, the Elections Commissioner had the authority to appoint a Competent Authority for that media if he found the state media engaging in partisan political propaganda. The 18th Amendment has taken away that right.) Now with websites also being blocked, one cannot help the feeling that the government is brazenly shedding all its democratic pretensions and is intent on depriving the public of this country of alternate views on public issues. There are Ministers and parliamentarians within the governing coalition who hold liberal democratic values. That they shamelessly go along with such undemocratic moves can only be explained by their valuing personal political considerations above that of the national interest – in halting the slide into authoritarianism, corruption and lawlessness in the country.
The right to freedom of expression and speech are integral to a free, democratic and civilised society. These freedoms include the freedom to access and receive information and to disseminate this information. Persons and groups have a right to engage in open debate on issues of public interest and to criticize individuals. No one can claim to be above criticism. The laws of defamation and libel are adequate to deal with any person, organization or website that defames somebody’s reputation. The only motive for blocking the websites referred can only be to prevent the people of this country have access to criticism of the government or of wrong-doing by persons in authority; and in the case of the UNP website, to deprive the people of having access to the views of the principal opposition party. President J R Jayewardene deprived his principal political opponent of her civic rights, not after trial by the judiciary of the land, but by a hand-picked tribunal. Sadly, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has similarly deprived his principal political opponent of his civic and political rights by having him “convicted”, not by the judiciary of the land, but by a hand-picked military tribunal. This move to block critical websites means that the authoritarianism of the Jayewardene government is being taken several steps further by the Rajapaksa government.
The government has also announced that it is planning to ensure that all websites carrying news on Sri Lanka register, presumably, with the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. Presumably also those websites that do not register will be blocked. How that is going to be implemented in practice remains a moot question. Websites of the BBC, Al Jazeera, etc regularly carry news content on Sri Lanka and about the people of Sri Lanka. Are those websites to be blocked if they do not heed the call for registration. If the registration requirement is to be only for websites exclusively carrying Sri Lankan news, this requirement can easily be circumvented.
The Role of whistle-blowers
All those who value the democratic freedoms of speech and expression will be concerned at this move by the government. In this internet age, websites not only provide news but also act as whistle-blowers to expose corruption and abuse of power. Whistle-blowers may obtain information and documents through questionable methods, or even if they legitimately obtain documents and information to which they are privy by the nature of their job, they release that information in the public interest if that information pertains to corruption, abuse of power or some illegality. The website of Wikileaks is a splendid example. It is Wikileaks that exposed the corruption in Kenya when the then ruling clique siphoned off vast sums from state coffers; Wikileaks exposed the US State Department’s attempt to obtain sensitive personal information about officers in the United Nations; they also exposed the machinations of the US far-right religious organization called Scientology. But for all those admirable actions as a whistle-blower, Julian Assange probably over-extended himself when he released sensitive confidential documents that had nothing to do with corruption, abuse of power or any illegal activity. Heads of Diplomatic Mission overseas regularly send, or should be sending, confidential memoranda to the Foreign Office of their home countries. This will pertain to an assessment of the overall situation in the country to which they are accredited, notes of discussions they have had with key players in the political, social, religious and economic life of those countries, etc. It would be unethical to release those documents and make them available to the public at large. That is not whistle-blowing but sheer breach of confidentiality. Newspapers like the Guardian in the UK had an agreement with Wikileaks to receive the leaked documents; but they have correctly imposed self-censorship by not publishing any material that was not related to whistle-blowing, to an exposure of corruption and wrong-doing.

Aung San Suu Kyi, in an essay quoted in one of the booklets in CRM series, said that it was not so much power but fear that corrupts. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and the fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. That seems to be the explanation for the arbitrary and meaningless blocking of news websites.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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