Sri Lanka’s Channel 4 Problem
Photo courtesy of Channel 4
Perhaps I have been a little provocative in my choice of title. It’s not Sri Lanka that has a Channel 4 problem, it’s the Sri Lankan government. But in this corner of the world the Sri Lankan people are, for better or worse, identified with their government. As such any media programme targeting the Sri Lankan government tends to be seen as targeting the Sri Lankan people. After the war Channel 4 aired Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. The government left no stone unturned in questioning it and it faced no shortage of Sri Lankans willing to lend support. Times have changed. Now the same channel has come up with a documentary on the Easter attacks. And this time the government has few friends to count on.
A lot happened between then and now: multiple changes in administrations, a pandemic, an economic crisis that spiralled out of control into a political crisis and the coming to power of a government headed by an unelected president. Seen as lacking credibility, the government is now under attack by a British TV channel. Few Sri Lankans will be willing to bat for it now. This is particularly so because the victims of the Easter bombings, which the documentary features prominently, are by no means seen on par with the LTTE. The triumph over the LTTE helped legitimise Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term. The promise of a Commission and an investigation into the Easter attacks helped launch his brother to power. As of now there has been no proper investigation. And Gotabaya Rajapaksa is no longer president.
The Easter attacks documentary also has a wider global reach than the earlier Channel 4 documentary. As Dayan Jayatilleka pointed out in an interview with Hiru TV, the latest documentary will be watched and absorbed by more than 1.3 billion Catholics the world over. This is in stark contrast to the fewer than 90 million Tamils inhabiting the world right now. The Tamil expatriate community, be they Sri Lankan, Indian or South-East Asian, are powerful enough. But the Catholic community wields more power and more influence. Combined with the global Christian community – Catholic and non-Catholic – this can only mean the documentary will bring bad press to the country. The government cannot blame Channel 4 for making that possible. It has only itself to blame.
September is a pivotal month. UN Human Rights Commissioner Volker Turk has reiterated demands for targeted sanctions on Sri Lanka. In his latest report the Commissioner calls on the government and political parties to “strive for and deliver on long over-due democratic renewal, deeper institutional reforms and tangible progress on accountability, reconciliation and human rights.” The report, symbolically, focuses on economic crimes. Complicating matters further, two Opposition MPs have pledged to make representations on the country’s health crisis and the government’s complicity in that crisis, adding to a veritable witch’s brew. On the accountability front, Sri Lanka is thus being pummelled left, right and centre by human rights bodies. The Channel 4 documentary will not help matters.
On the security and sovereignty front, too, the documentary raises several questions. These questions remain unanswered. They have remained so since 2019. The Catholic church cannot be expected to understand the government’s plight if the government has done next to nothing to constructively address the problem. If the problem isn’t addressed, it is only natural that outside parties step in and fill in the blanks. It does not help that several officials associated with the yahapalana government and associated with opposition to the “villains” of the Channel 4 exposé, the Rajapaksas, have been featured extensively in the programme. From Nishantha de Silva to Frederica Jansz, the testimonies keep getting more and more serious, so much so that the excuse trotted out by stalwarts of the ex-ruling family – that the documentary is a “tissue of lies” – simply no longer holds.
Granted, the documentary itself can be, as it is being, subject to criticism, if not scrutiny. From the nationalist camp, Shenali Waduge has underlined these concerns rather forcefully. Ms. Waduge is, I think, the only person to have done so. But this is not 2009 and the programme has nothing to do with the ethnic conflict. The war was an event that Sri Lankans identified themselves with. Almost everyone wanted to see it end and an overwhelming majority were willing to give the then regime the benefit of the doubt, even if doubts still persist about the conduct of the war. This documentary, by contrast, is about ape minissu, not mlechcha thrasthawadiyo. Against that backdrop, the government can expect little from Sri Lankans in the form of denunciation or even criticism of Channel 4.
The biggest takeaway from all this is the simple fact, which unfortunately remains as valid then as now, that the Sri Lankan government has in nine cases out of ten been reactive and defensive, not proactive and assertive, in its dealings with sensitive matters. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government paraded itself as different, as stronger and more assertive. This has turned out to be, to put it charitably, a load of hot air. The X-Press Pearl disaster is one case in point. The government’s inability to press for compensation – the country eventually got Rs.301 million, as against the $6.4 billion that experts had not only estimated but also recommended – is a damning testament to the state’s lack of clout. The chaos of the Easter attacks investigations has been no different.
The narrative around which the latest Channel 4 documentary revolves is a world away from the narrative of the last Channel 4 documentary on Sri Lanka. In the latter the government could, in its defence, mount a clear “us versus them” dichotomy, portraying the channel as a harbinger of conspiracy theories and tendentious lies. This does not hold and will not hold for the present documentary. In the popular consciousness, the Easter attacks had a set of hidden hands behind it. Who did what, when and where, remains unanswered. The longer we wait without answering these questions, the easier it will be for external parties to get in and wield the narrative against whoever they want. This is the way of the world. If the government thinks otherwise, it is being as naïve as it can be.