Speech by Rajiva Wijesinha at the meeting of CALD & ALDE in Brussels, Belgium - 16 April 2008
|Speech by Rajiva Wijesinha at the meeting of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats and The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Pacific, Africa and the Caribbean in Brussels, Belgium - 16 April 2008
|From http://www.peaceinsrilanka.org/peace2005/Insidepage/SCOPPDaily_Report/SCOPP_report170408.asp: The Official Website of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP)|
When I was asked last evening to speak tonight, I did not worry overmuch since I thought that all that was expected was an after dinner type speech, a brief coda to one of Graham Watson´s special performances. But when I read this morning the graphic description Ms Botha had provided for us of current threats to democracy in South Africa, reflecting too that Graham as the ALDE chair always manages to make us think of liberal values even in his most entertaining speeches, I thought I ought perhaps to look more deeply into some of the issues that concern us now.
I will naturally look more closely at Sri Lankan issues, but it may be useful to do this in terms of an issue that is of particular interest today to ALDE, and to the rest of us as well. I refer to Mr Berlusconi, and his triumph in the Italian election. Listening to colleagues over the last few hours, following the discussion this morning at the ALDE sessions, I realize that the key to his victory lay in his control of the media. Interestingly, the same explanation lay at the heart of another recent defeat for the liberal cause, the triumph of forces representing Taksin Sinawatra in the December election in Thailand.
On the one hand we need to recognize that, if people vote for elements we do not support, we have to respect their decision, and work harder to convince them of the better way. But at the same time we can see that in general the power of the media is enormous, and often tends to be used to simplify issues and thus sometimes pervert them. So, just as in promoting freedom we require also freedom of opportunity, which is why liberals have always believed in broadening educational opportunities for all, so too when we depend on democracy we should also work towards an educated and aware electorate.
Unfortunately that can be confused with propaganda, and we all know how dangerous that is. But the type of propaganda produced by an apparently free media that belongs to some politicians is also a form of control that does not help democracy.
How to deal with such issues is not however my main concern here. Rather, I would like to look at the principles in terms of our own concerns in Sri Lanka, where we have enormous problems with media misrepresentation of the current situation. Sadly that misrepresentation influences politicians in the rest of the world, and it is not often that we are allowed the right of reply, or any opportunity at all to set the record straight.
I have just come from Oslo, where I attended a conference on Peace and Reconciliation in South Asia, in which there was a panel on the role of the media. Clearly there were many instances in which media reports had militated against peace, few in which there were positive effects. In particular we have found, with regard to Sri Lanka, an easy demonization of governmental initiatives, without proper attention to facts or details.
This has recently led to what seems marked hostility to the Sri Lankan government on the part of the European Union. We had the commission’s office for Human Rights advising us not to hold elections, on the strength of reports issued by organizations which were fulfilling what turned out to be a terrorist agenda. We have had threats that GSP+ might be withdrawn, on the strength of reports that deal sensationalistically with outdated information, without careful analysis of statistics. We have had finger-wagging from some Commissioners, even while others, more responsibly, have accepted deficiencies in the way the EU deals with terrorism, and with restricting fund flows for terrorist activity.
Much of this springs from the easy dichotomizing that is the hallmark of modern media techniques. In Sri Lanka, there was certainly abuse of Tamils in the early eighties, and many refugees from that period still carry with them a bitterness that translates into strong pressures on European politicians, and indeed South African ones too. Such bitterness is understandable, but the politicians should at least consider the current situation, not be led astray by reports that relate to the past, accompanied by film footage that is years old.
But what we have, expressed quite baldly sometimes in the easy simplifications that colour assessments of events far away, is classification of protagonists into victims and perpetrators, with no attempt to understand the wider responsibility for the tragedies that occurred. This sometimes leads to a perversion of the concept of balance, so that atrocities committed by former victims are presented in the context of what they suffered, however long ago that was, even though government structures have changed. This approach has led in many instances to tolerance for current abuses, as indeed we can see in the manner in which so many former victims slip so easily into the role of dictators themselves.
It would be unfair perhaps to refer to the several allies of the West, in struggles of earlier eras, who then turned out to be determined opponents democracy and pluralism, let alone liberalism. But for the future at any rate it would help if those who promoted these values, for their own worth and not simply their congruence with current Western priorities, engaged more with a range of interlocutors in the countries on which they comment, understood not only facts in context but values and aspirations and emotions in relation to such facts.
It is for this reason that we emphatically welcome the interactions that ALDE has so assiduously promoted in the last few years. The transformation of Liberal International in the last decade or so from a eurocentric organization to one that truly embraces the world has been a magnificent achievement, and we all of us owe a debt of gratitude to the individuals and the institutions, such as the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, that promoted this. But there is a long way yet to go if we are to ensure the fuller understanding that will promote our joint values. In this context I would remind you that the media, as we have seen recently, is not necessarily a guardian of truth and justice. It can be used by those more ruthless than ourselves, and we should make sure that we are not taken in, as so many voters who have little opportunity of seeing the other side of the coin seem to be so readily taken in.