For some reason there is no English language TV channel in Sri Lanka despite English being commonly spoken and indeed the first language of some Sri Lankans. English language newspapers and magazines aplenty but nothing on TV. The best they can manage is a half hour English language news bulletin on the Sinhala news channel Ada Derana – where many of the adverts, incidentally, are in English. It’s on at 9pm and we tuned in the other night to catch a bit more detail and a Sri Lankan as opposed to BBC etc. perspective on what’s happening in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday atrocities.
The bulletin is proudly sponsored by the manufacturers of a toilet cleaner which might have given us sufficient pause for thought. But there was no time for contemplation as a young female newsreader launched into a breathless, staccato account of what the police and military had been up to all day. By the end of this ten minute tour de force we were also left panting. So much going on, so little time to tell it. Her producer must have had her injected with something which metaphorically turned the key to breaking point and set her off in her valiant attempt to keep up with an autocue set in triple time. Like one of those drumming rabbits that advertise a certain brand of battery.
The military and police had certainly been busy uncovering all kinds of things around the island. “Meanwhile, in Wattegama…” yakyakyak “Meanwhile, in Batticaloa… “ yakyakyak “Meanwhile, in Kurunagela…” yakyakyak “Meanwhile in Matara…” yakyakyak … and so on. Many exciting finds were reported and a few of them may even have related to terrorism. Rather more seemed to be crudely improvised petrol bombs and caches of knives probably put together by idiots seeking revenge on local Muslim communities but not terrorism as such. Some were buried and from the fleeting glimpses one had of them could well have been leftovers from the civil war that ended a decade ago. There were 12-bore rifles and ammo possibly belonging to farmers and hunters who didn’t have gun licences. My favourite was a bunch of spent cartridges dug out of a drain, presented with breathless excitement as yet another example of our security forces confounding terrorism. There were also finds of “clothing resembling army uniforms” i.e. the kind of faux fatigues easily available in many shops. But the impression one was left with was that army bases had been looted, or maybe that there were army insiders working with the terrorists.
Now I’m treading a careful line here. I am not belittling the possible importance of some of these finds, nor am I criticising for a moment the work of the security forces. My target is the ridiculous public presentation of their work, not the work itself. Ada Derana’s English news, wittingly or otherwise, contributes to a climate of fear and panic – as I imagine do its Sinhalese and Tamil counterparts – and studiously avoids any attempt to analyse or even contextualise its content. The remainder of the programme, although conducted at a more normal pace, consisted of statements by politicians, senior military and police commanders and the like. Sometimes informative but they were not questioned, just left to say their piece to camera before moving on to the next guy (all guys, needless to say). These statements were very crudely edited with obvious flashes and inserted words to create a short but followable narrative from what must have been much longer statements. The editing might have simply removed guff and verbiage; or it might have removed points that the channel or the authorities didn’t want to see made; or (for serious conspiracy theorists this one) could even have twisted the meaning of the statement to the opposite of what was meant. One simply cannot tell, but the technicals would probably not have passed muster in an average first year undergraduate film school class.
Ada Derana did not say that all or most of these findings were in mosques, but nor did it say that they weren’t. Result – an intelligent Sri Lankan we know concluded that the whole lot must have belonged to Muslims. I have no idea whether that is likely to be true since no-one tells us (my instinct is that it isn’t) but “news” presented like this, devoid of context, analysis or interrogation, actually serves to stir up rather than reduce inter-communal hatreds. On the ground, it feels very different. In Kandy – the only city I can talk about from first-hand knowledge – there is a high and very visible level of security, but all conducted with a commendable lightness of touch. It feels really safe, just as it always did in the war. But you would not reach that conclusion from either the Sri Lankan or world news media reportage.
The male presenter had disconcerting eyes and his left hand was on the desk performing a continuous squeezing motion. He might have been softening up some blu-tack for later use but I suspect he had a rubber bulb connected to a tube running below the desk through which he kept his female colleague pumped with a cocktail of amphetamines so she could keep up her Mach-2 delivery.
Anyone feel like starting up a proper English language TV station in Sri Lanka? There’s a huge market opportunity.