Freedom of expression and fundamental rights

After the Mahara Incident: Of Reporting in Defence of the Society

Vihanga Perera

Almost a week after the event, the 11 inmates who were shot dead during the Mahara Prison incident have been identified by their families. Earlier, special forces had been summoned to the high density prison complex in Mahara to quell a disturbance that had broken out on 30 November after a protest against the officials’ inaptitude in addressing Covid virus spread in the prison premises. As has been revealed since, in an unrest that followed part of the prison complex had been set on fire. Footage of in-fighting between some prisoners was aired a few days later. Contrary to claims that circulated on the first day of the violence, investigations carried out later seemed to suggest that the prisoners had been unarmed. In other words, findings suggest that the 11 prisoners who had been shot dead in Mahara had been defenceless.    

On 3 December, Colombo Telegraph reported on negligence by prison authorities who had failed to follow protocol when the in-fighting broke out. As Colombo Telegraph reported, the footage that was later aired on media reveal voices of officials who opt not to interfere in establishing order. Special forces had been called in when the situation got out of hand. Of over 120 persons admitted in hospitals for injuries international media cited at least 26 cases of gunshot wounds. During the first week of December, parliament discussed various aspects of the Mahara prison violence. The then State Minister for Prison Reforms admitted in parliament that prisons in Sri Lanka was overcrowded and housed three times its capacity. She also conceded that among the prisoners there were many who were exhausting sentences for defaulting fines. This number was over 20,000 which made 70% of the convict population. Groundviews quoted Prison Department statistics that suggested between 78-82% of prison admissions were remanded prisoners – mere suspects.         

When the violence broke out in the Mahara prison, some media factories and new media content-developers attempted to defocus public attention in two ways. At one level, content was circulated that attacked the prisoners themselves as undesirables with a criminal past. Secondly, news was circulated alluding to conspiracy theories that suggested the unrest being provoked to cover up corruption in the prison. Among the buildings set on fire was an administrative block with documents and ledgers. Writing to Divaina on 6 December, Saman Gamage assumed the violence may have even been planned as a smokescreen to make an attempt on the life of Shani Abeysekara – the former Criminal Investigations officer – who, till the previous week, was kept at Mahara prison. Gamage suggested that had Abeysekara been harmed in some way, it would have given a political slogan to be used against the government. In Gamage’s own words (in my translation): “did someone scheme to make President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa a defendant at the international level and lead him to the guillotine?” In addition to the amusement such farfetched suppositions generate, one notes the ludicrousness of concepts such as “defendant at the international level” (jaathyanthara vitthikaruvek) and “leading (a Sri Lankan president) to the guillotine” (dhangediyata raegena yaema): sensationalist hatchings that appeal to the patriotic stimuli points of the masses, but has no diplomatic or legal bearing.              

While some of these theories are purely speculative, others follow the appropriation of piecemeal information that can be fit according to the narrative one wants to build. But by prioritizing such speculative fictions, these reporters take the focus off the real issue: the deplorable conditions within the prison system at a time of a fast-spreading contagious virus. Interestingly, some mainstream media reports admit to the alarming Covid statistic in the prisons. But they are presented as just that: an entry which makes a report complete. There is often little critical engagement or questioning of what the escalation of patients, the disproportionate spread of minimum facilities, or of the official negligence. To the contrary, some new media shares – by using derogatory Sinhalese terminology – seemed to stir prejudice against the prisoners as a class of society, and advocate on behalf of another class: the persons who have sovereign power over the prison space.   

While idle speeches of some politicians – though in no way appraised – can be rationalized as offerings to the blind masses of their electorate, the critical detachment of the press can be detrimental to social progress. Worse still, the media’s falling in line with cheap political trickery – perhaps for ideological reasons – can be a dangerous habit on the long run. But, of course, as humanity is always already political as a species, a news provider, too, has an institutional politics to espouse. Whether it is CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, or one of our Colombo media outlets, the institution has political allegiance in its veins. But reaching over such preferences are social organizations, civil spaces, and rights which have to be recognized as the foundations of society. Media must always stay in line with the traditional characterization of its being the “fourth estate” (or the fourth power), and defend society. Than being steered by it, the press is crowned with the civic-minded responsibility of steering politics. 

At the tail-end of a particularly turbulent year, on one hand we are faced with a crashing economy. While Sri Lanka has been unprecedentedly downgraded by accredited bodies, there is a real risk of the country having to use more and more foreign reserves to keep up with debt repayment. The path ahead for the government is a precarious one, but it doesn’t seem to have a sustainable approach to matters either. To watch and root at some Premier League cricket is a relief for our country’s people as they await the axe to fall. But, this is not a time for the media to provide cheap entertainment. A dispassionate revision is in order: a rethinking as to how one must frame particularly sensitive news by transgressing one’s narrow terrain of politics, but for the benefit of society, social organizations, and the rights that govern humanity. 

Of equal or greater importance is accountability: practical measures media should adopt when a reporter had overstated or undermined the case. In the culture we know, the standard practice is to print an apology in an obscure print. The prevailing practice, however, is to say nothing at all and to move ahead.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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