The Rajpal Abeynayake Column                     By Rajpal Abeynayake  

A checklist of good news
Good news is not news, which is probably why the coverage of two funerals hogged the global news coverage. Somebody berated the Pope not without some justification, stating that his advocacy against condoms led to the death of millions in Africa. How can people practise abstinence, he asked, when Catholic priests cannot contain their sexual urges to prey on altar boys??

Funeral news and negative news in the past few weeks, gave more credence to the theory that from an Editor's viewpoint good news is not news.

That being the media culture, is it possible, particularly in a Sri Lankan context, to have one day of the year dedicated to the purveying of good news?? 'There was a bountiful harvest of Gherkins.' 'Ten hospitals will be renovated at state expense?' That kind of thing.

The nature of sunshine news is that it's a dead bore. There is no glamour associated with an observable jump in the Gherkin crop.
But, good news can yet be purveyed aggressively.

Here is an attempt:
What are the good things about Sri Lanka, that can give the lie to the common notion that the country is a mess, peppered with politicians who talk first and think later.

Consider the following numbered positive facets:
1. Sri Lankans do rise to the occasion, it's their attention spans that are deficient. When the tsunami struck on December 26th, the New Year was subdued, even in a city as far from a tsunami hit beach such as Kandy. There was no Presidential request to refrain from lighting crackers, but it can almost be said safely that nobody lit a cracker in the entirety of Sri Lanka last December 31st.

2. It means this is a country where the people are leaders, and the leaders are led by their noses. The people have to clean up after the mess left by their political elites.

There are glaring examples. The 1983 riots were engineered by a rump group of the JRJ government. The people rose to the occasion by giving refuge to Tamils who were set upon by organized goondas.

3. There isn't one major Sri Lankan crisis that cannot be traced back to the buffoonery of self- serving partisan politicians.
But, the people have been magnanimous to this lot. They have voted, in increasing numbers at every successive election, despite the fact that those whom they elect continue to disappoint them. The people alone have saved democracy in this country.

4. A positive aspect of Sri Lankan life is that there is a healthy level of mistrust at least when its sorely needed. There is a healthy level of mistrust for non-governmental organizations for instance, to the extent that when the tsunami struck, somebody wrote that the NGOs have been brought out for their 'ritual castration in the media.'

But this ritual has played a key role in keeping Sri Lankans from being completely and irrevocably neo- colonized. There are varying shades of opinion about the validity of NGO work, but even the media pockets bought over by the NGOs have not been able to dispel the popular skepticism towards the NGOs.

There are newspapers, for example, which though not directly in the pay of NGOs, employ functionaries -- reporters and freelancers -- who are in their pay. Recently, some of these newspapers carried a campaign of personal attacks against media men who have relentlessly exposed the NGOs.

These are newspapers which expose other giants in public life, but they seem to be unable to touch the NGOs with a feather. But the public has outed more NGO charlatans than these newspapers. Public skepticism alone has kept the non-governmental organizations from subverting the national agenda. The issue of the privatization of water resources is one valid example.

Public antipathy to this move has been channeled through the newspapers, via letters and articles. There is no people power in Sri Lanka, somebody wailed, whereas successive Phillipino strongmen were deposed by text-messaging political mobs.

Why do we need mobs in a country that is more sophisticated than the Philippines? We haven't yet had a first lady to match Imelda (Shoe) Marcos. This country has not afforded an opportunity to a Ferdinand Marcos. Military coups have not happened in Sri Lanka, whereas they have been seasonal as the Mangosteens in countries such as Pakistan and the Phillipines.

But, it's correct that we cannot compare ourselves with polities lesser than ours. We cannot be heard to say, for instance, that we are better off than sub-Saharan Africa for the simple reason that we have on the other hand, fallen behind countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, which were on a level of parity with us at the time the colonizers were leaving.

But we have sneaked ahead of, say, Pakistan, in terms of our record as a democracy. In the Pakistani newspapers, the romanticism is about an imagined day when the people shall elect their leaders.

We on the other hand, romanticize the imagined day when Sri Lanka will be an economic powerhouse such as Malaysia. At least the quality of our dreams is better than those of our immediate sub continental neighbors.

5. Small consolation, it can be said. There are Rule of Law problems, a soaring crime rate, and a call to tighten our belts from every government since independence.

The eventual conclusion which has been trotted out by Editorialists in many ways but never quite cogently summed-up, is that we have in the final analysis been a long suffering people who are suffering our political leaders. The resilience of our country comes from the unwillingness of the people to allow the complete breakdown of institutions. When there was a coup attempt, it was 'outed', in a historically memorable manner, when one of the coup plotters shared the information with his wife with his pillow talk.

Coups have been thwarted. Insurrections have been forced back, even though gruesomely repelled, for instance in 1989 and 71 when the system was teetering on the brink. A more than 20-year-old armed conflict has been repeatedly described by the foreign media as a civil war, but the people have thumbed their noses at this misnomer. What's the civil war here, when the Tamil people are not fighting the Sinhalese and the Sinhala people are not fighting the Tamils - but instead we have two armed entities fighting each other??

In sum then, this is a resilient country, in which the people have been its saving grace. But there is a riddle at the end of it. If the people are the country's strength, how come its leaders are so putrid - - because the leaders come from among the people…?

The people however cannot wisely choose their leaders when they are all bumbling clones of each other with no exceptions. It's like the media. When standards of the English media started dropping in the 70s, particularly with an embarrassing brand of keyhole political gossip journalism being introduced, the newspaper world forgot what it used to be. Standards went plummeting. Newspapers started giving the people what they wanted -- the last resort of the pornographer.

It will be years before this rot, which has consumed the media industry, can be reversed. Similarly, the standards of leadership dropped with the emergence of populist politics. It will be years before that rot is reversed, but at least grant the people some credit for preserving their institutions, with so much pressure from outside and from within to tear these institutions, such as democracy and ethnic solidarity apart. It is news that people can be given such credit sometimes. Such good news IS news.

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