Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 5 May 2013
May 3 was World Press Freedom Day – a misnomer in this multimedia age, but nevertheless a cause worth celebrating and defending.
There are various indicators of media freedom including direct and indirect censorship, diversity of media ownership, and physical attacks on journalists and media organisations. A growing concern is how governments and large corporations are trying to control freedom of expression on the web.
Another useful barometer of media freedom can be the level of satire in a society. Satire and parody are important forms of political commentary that rely on blurring the line between factual reporting and creative license to scorn and ridicule public figures.
Political satire is nothing new: it has been around for centuries, making fun of kings, emperors, popes and generals. Over time, satire has manifested in many oral, literary and theatrical traditions. In recent decades, satire has evolved into its own distinctive genre in print, on the airwaves and online.
While providing much-needed comic relief for an over-stressed world, satire serves two other critical functions.
First, satire offers an effective – though not always fail-safe – cover for taking on authoritarian regimes that are intolerant of criticism, leave alone any dissent. No wonder the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc inspired so much dark humour…
Second, satire is now compensating for a worldwide decline in serious and investigative journalism. Many mainstream media outlets have become too submissive to authority, or simply indifferent to safeguarding the public interest.
Stepping into this ‘journalism deficit’ are two different groups: citizen journalists, who wield information and communications technologies (ICTs), and political satirists who specialise in getting under the skin of those in authority.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about these trends. Old school media teachers and practitioners still can’t believe how anyone could produce good journalism without formal training, institutional affiliation or any payment. Such cynics, dwindling in number, are rightfully labelled as mediasaurus…
Then there are purists who complain that political satire blurs the traditional demarcations between news, commentary and entertainment.
For sure, serious journalism can’t be fully outsourced to satirists and stand-up comics. But comedy and political satire can play a key role in critiquing politicians, businessmen and others whose actions impact the public. I would much rather have satirists taking on serious topics than news anchors trying out comedian acts.
There is another dimension to political satire and caricature that isn’t widely appreciated in liberal democracies where freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed.
In immature democracies and autocracies, critical journalists and their editors take many risks in the line of work. When direct criticism becomes highly hazardous, satire and parody become important — and sometimes the only – ways for journalists get around draconian laws, stifling media regulations or trigger-happy goon squads…
Little wonder, then, that some of Sri Lanka’s sharpest commentary is found in satire columns and cartoons. Much of what passes for political analysis is actually gossip.
Over the years, we have had talented and indomitable political satirists like Tarzie Vittachi (who wrote in the 1950s as Fly-by-Night), Sirilal Kodikara (creator of Ranchagoda Lamaya) and Dayasena Gunasinghe (who wrote multiple satirical columns before his hasty departure).
Continuing this tradition in more turbulent times during and after the Lankan war has not been easy. Only the bravest have succeeded in staying above party politics and other divisions.
Three Princes of Lankan Satire
Today, I want to salute three of my favourites.
Sundara Nihathamani de Mel, one of the most versatile Sinhala language journalists, is best known for his long-running satire column, Manige Theeruwa (Mani’s column). It now appears in Sunday Lakbima newspaper where he is chief editor. In a first person narrative of typically 300 words, he ridicules and lampoons all around, but with malice towards none.
Across the media spectrum in Ravaya newspaper, its features editor Wimalanath Weeraratne writes the award-winning Wimalege Colama (Wimale’s Column). Every week, he takes off from a current news event and builds an entirely plausible scenario that is both hilarious and provocative.
Both writers are equal opportunity bashers of ruling and opposition politicians. Weeraratne, in particular, regularly parodies the President, while also taking on leading artistes, intellectuals and businessmen. He always names names, and doesn’t spare the men in khaki and those in saffron — two institutions that most Lankan media treat with too much deference. In short, no Sacred Cows for this satirist!
Cartoonist Camillus Perera, meanwhile, has been blasting inflated egos for nearly half a century. He started drawing newspaper cartoons 1966 with the Observer, then under private ownership. Over the years he has created many popular characters, including wily Siribiris, prankster Gajaman, fashionable Dekkoth Pathmawathie, smart alec Tikka and sporty Sellan Sena.
These characters are very ordinary and very real, inhabiting an undefined yet familiar place that most Lankan newspaper readers can relate to. A bit like R K Narayan’s fictitious Malgudi…
Now in his 70s, Camillus is still at it with the Sunday Rivira, where he draws my favourite character, Siribiris, who is Everyman personified: poor, misled by politicians, exploited by businessmen, hoodwinked by corrupt officials, and always struggling to stay alive. He is down — but not out. He hits back with the only ‘weapon’ available: his wits. The irrepressible Lankan spirit in action!
Courageous or Foolhardy?
I don’t know if these satirists self-censor their self expression, but they sure push the limits. Reviewing Weeraratne’s first book of satire columns in 2010, I wrote: “I can’t quite decide whether he is extremely courageous, or completely foolhardy, to take on these topics and characters week after week.”
There is no argument, however, that their satire fulfills a deeply felt need in contemporary Sri Lanka for the media to check the various concentrations of power — in political, military, corporate and religious domains.
Do these and other satirists prove that there is sufficient media freedom in Sri Lanka? To the contrary, it is highly revealing that they are often the only ones doing serious political and social commentary in the mainstream media.
Satire is not an easy art at the best of times, and it takes extraordinary courage to practise in times and lands like ours. The cacophonous Lankan blogosphere and the increasingly crowded Twittersphere have yet to produce distinctive satire brands.
However, some green shoots seem promising. Banyan News Reporters on Groundviews.org uses satire to raise awareness on corruption, war crimes, impunity, censorship, civilian displacement, abductions, torture, extra-judicial killings, human rights violations, national security and humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, a growing number of Lankan memes are being released on Facebook.
Oh, while at it, let’s also salute an early act of reader defiance that mocked authoritarian rule long before ‘citizen journalism’ was defined. One day in April 1974, an innocuous (paid) obituary notice was printed in state-controlled Daily News. It announced the death, under tragic circumstances, of a certain D. E. M. O’Cracy (beloved husband of T. Ruth, father of L. I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justice)…
This appeared just after the then government had banned political rallies, sealed a newspaper group and imposed other Emergency measures. It was many years later that the writer – Dr Riley Fernando – revealed his identity.
The spoof was emulated in The Times of India in June 1975, and later printed in Reader’s Digest. The incident also prompted all publishers to insist on death certificates for carrying obituaries.