21 January, 2011

When Noam Chomsky is Hoodwinked

Last year, around this time, I was getting ready to fly home to Sri Lanka to attend the Galle Literary Festival, an event I reflected on afterward in a post titled ‘The Dutch, The British and the Galle Literary Festival,’ a post meant to consider its many pluses as well as suggest some direction for the points at which the festival failed Sri Lankans, particularly those Sri Lankans who write in their mother tongues, Sinhala and Tamil.

My visit to Sri Lanka coincided with the Presidential elections, the first held in post-war Sri Lanka and if you truly want to know, this is what the country felt like to a Sri Lankan on the day of the elections. During that time I had the dubious honor of being approached by the group The Campaign for Peace & Justice – here is a quick description of that exchange.

Which brings me to the letter I received – it was addressed to all of us who are participating in the Galle Literary Festival – from the director of The Campaign for Peace & Justice, asking us to make all sorts of noise about the allegations he puts forth regarding abuses he has not substantiated. I’d like to say go fly a blooming kite. Instead I’ll say this: “In Sri Lanka the average voter turn out is 80%, education and health care is free, women are liberated and smart, and we have a President able to end a war and rebuild his country (while fending off ignorant individuals who want to keep enjoying their NGO junkets on our beautiful island and triviliazing our tragedies by turning our complexity into sound bites for your rabid 24/7 news media). I don’t need you to tell me what to say at a festival being held in my country. I don’t need your talking points. I don’t need your advice. I don’t need your cautionary tales of doom and gloom, mister. I’m too busy celebrating our good.” Outside in the streets I can hear firecrackers. Salut!

A few days ago I read Jon Lee Anderson’s article in the New Yorker, a piece that was so full of errors of omission and deliberate misinformation that I was compelled to write a note titled ‘Truth in Journalism: New Yorker, you lose’ over at Barks, Bugs, Leaves & Lizards Here’s an excerpt:

I just finished reading a piece of fiction that had been misfiled by the editors of the New Yorker under a category – feature? expose? – that is commonly associated with non-fiction. i.e. truthful reporting. The article, by Jon Lee Anderson, would appear to the relatively uninformed American – and boy aren’t there a lot of us – to be one that covers the thirty year war in Sri Lanka from start to finish. Oddly enough, it is largely erroneous, its one nod to any “good” achieved by Sri Lanka’s government is contained in a parenthesis, as if he just ran out of time to get all the information but felt what he had was enough to pass muster. But what the heck, how odd is it when I am yet to see a single article in the American press that actually covered the events in Sri Lanka without prejudice against her government and her entire people, both Sinhalese and Tamil?

The problem with foreign journalists is one I’ve talked about many times here (Foreign Media) and here (Media and Truth) and here (All the News Fit to Print), as well as America’s (and her journalists’s) myopia viz-a-viz Sri Lanka. None of this is new to Sri Lankans though I am sure that legions of readers of the New Yorker imagine that they now have a full grasp of the politics and history of Sri Lanka. They would be wrong.

Noam Chomsky belongs in that same category of the wrong, hard though it is to say it; the man is certainly affable and smart (as is his daughter who was one of my professors in college). He is right about many things, but he, like most American leftists are easily co-opted by anybody who can string the words “minorities” and “human rights” together in a passable sentence. American leftists, no matter their vilification of ignorant Russia-from-my-own-backyard sayers, consider events beyond their shores to require no context. What happens somewhere else comes to them in the same sound bites it does to every other American. In this case, Noam Chomsky has lent his name to yet another missive addressed to participants of the Galle literary festival, a letter sent to me by Vincent Brossei the tireless, spear heading an effort by the equally tireless and often wrong and supremely opinionated Reporters Sans Frontiers, a group roundly taken to task by Sri Lankan journalist – and my brother – Malinda Seneviratne. Here’s an excerpt, but the full article is well worth a read:

In Loshan’s case, after two days, RSF Asia has deemed him ‘innocent’. Are these people experts on counter-terrorist operations? Are they intelligence-personnel-without-borders masquerading as reporters-without-borders? Or else, does this cocksureness come from full knowledge about who the terrorists are? I mean, is it because they know who is a terrorist and who is not that they can pronounce so boldly that Loshan is innocent? I was curious. I sent a quick reply which resulted in the following email conversation with RSF Asia (the original email was sent by one Vincent Brossel, the subsequent ones came without an author….perhaps they should call themselves ‘Reports-Sans-Names’!) : a quick question: is the assumption that terrorists cannot be journalists and vice versa?

RSF Asia: Of course it can be, but give us evidence…

Self: Give ‘us’ evidence? Who is this ‘us’?

RSF Asia: the people defending him and the others journalists detained. terrorism is a very serious charge, so we need to get strong and concrete evidence, not just rumor, gossip or allegations. thanks for your understanding

Self: i meant, who/what is RSF….and what kind of authority do you enjoy. yes, terrorism is a serious charge. it is a serious phenomenon as well. this is why, i believe, those whose responsibility it is to ensure the security of all citizens cannot spare any pains when it comes to investigation.

RSF Asia: RSF is a NGO working for more than 25 years for press freedom. You can challenge our authority but you will hardly find any mistake written or done. With thousands of members around the world and institutional backing in Europe.

Self: would you mind telling me who your principal sri lankan contacts are, the main sources of information?

RSF: many different journalists from different circles and communities, but for reasonable security reasons, I can’t give the names.

Self: ah….security is good for you, not for others? come on, you can’t be serious!

Since then, nothing. Dead silence. Should they re-name themselves ‘Reporters Without Words’, I wonder.

RSF takes umbrage at defence authorities that are given or give themselves blank checks, and rightly so. By the same token, however, they can’t give themselves blank checks either, one would think. There is something insidious about claims of universal caring, love and what not when it also comes with an absence of accountability and responsibility.

Now, the crusade is about Prageeth Ekneligoda. To the extent that the government and in particular the President is required to uphold law and order, there is grave cause for concern. At the same time not everyone who puts words together is a journalist. Ekneligoda’s writings are not the kind that any respectable journalist would be proud of. He was mischievous, bordering on slander, utterly without integrity and hardly impartial in any sense of the word. His disappearance bothers us all because he is a citizen and not because a bunch of ill-informed people who have a pretty dubious track record when it comes to reportage in and on Sri Lanka tag him as ‘journalist’. Many fellow-travelers have also freely travelled with terrorists and terrorism, engaged in fund-misappropriation, violated the fundamental norms of decency and have proven to have little or no scruples in the matter of reporting and making statements.

It is indeed strange that someone like Noam Chomsky asks, as Reporters Without Borders asks, in the name of expression-freedom that free expression be shunned for, when it – once again – asks participants at this festival to spout its untruths or half truths or political agendas, that is precisely what it he is and they are doing. Literature does not thrive only on account of guarantees of freedom but indeed in spite of the lack of such safeguards. As the sister of a journalist and an occasional freelancer myself, I am all for media freedom but would hardly stand with a bunch of ignorant, naive (at best) and ill-intentioned and malicious (in all probability) clowns to champion that cause. In my opinion it would do the cause a disservice. Odd, too, isn’t it that in this day of freedom of information, I can’t find Vincent Brossei’s bio – or any background on him – anywhere? So here is what I’d like to say to Vincent: grow a set and come out of hiding.

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One Response to “When Noam Chomsky is Hoodwinked”

  1. Gowri Rajendran says:

    Thank you for posting this. I believe your article provides a clear-headed, rational insight into a complex issue.

    There is so much misinformation about Sri-Lanka out there; bashing Sri-Lanka has become fashionable among certain circles. Thankfully, people who are not taken in by glib soundbites – and are not partisan – are the true activists. Such people need to be heard!

    Keep up the good work.

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On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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