The Voyeuristic Base Material in Crime for the Lankan Newspaper Industry

“The Army has every right to rape and kill detained women, for those women are the remains of and the plunder from the Enemy Land. Their rights are in our fulfillment”

Haunting words of a colleague discussing Euripides’ Trojan Women six months before the military defeat of the LTTE.


Diyatha is a supplement issued with Sunday’s Lankadeepa newspaper, a publication of the Wijaya Group. It usually consists of 10 pages, focusing on issues related to “obscure histories”, “biography sketches”, “historical phenomena” etc. The scope is largely Sri Lankan, with a reflection on “flip sides” and out-of-the line facets related to moments and people who shaped recent history of the island. Lankadeepa being Lankadeepa there is no critical or revisionist engagement here, but the assortment comes across as an amassing of facts and detail that, as it is assumed, have been elusive to the mainstream.

A careful study of Diyatha shows us a fetish of violence — specially, that of the failed insurrections engineered by the JVP in 1971 and in 1987-89. There are many perspectives of these idolized and romanticized coups periodically presented — the same formula being churned out in slightly different accents. A similar prominence is given to accounts to do with incarceration, torture and killings / kidnappings of civilians by armed groups / armed forces. For instance, the item titled Ratak Haedavu Bheeshana Samayaka Upatha (The Origins of an Epoch of Terror that made a Nation Mourn), by last week, was into its 54th entry; each entry prolonging the pain and the trauma a faceless citizen cohort goes through in military custody.

The line up of Diyatha‘s July 8th edition is as follows:

(1). The cover displays the titles, when roughly translated to English reads as (a) Ambedkar’s Maiden Victory, (b) Leftist Ideologies that Divided the Left and (c) The Dark Fate of a JVP-er who was Detained in a Torture Base. Each caption is accompanied by suggestive pictures.

(2). Pg 2 — Latest from the serialized Political Memories of Nandana Gunatilake (one time JVP stalwart), subtitled Arms Training for Nandana.

(3). Pg 3 — The Origins of an Epoch of Terror that made a Nation Mourn, Part 54: Police Spies on the Campus.

(4). Pg 4 — Ambedkar Who was Against Castism, Part 2: Ambedkar’s Maiden Victory.

(5). Pg 5 — The Unpublished Story of 87-89, (As Narrated by Rajitha Senaratne), Part 14: “Arrest Dayan Jayathilake on Sight”.

(6). Pg 6 — The Foot Steps of War Victory (As Described by Lakshman Hulugalle, the Director General of the Media Center for national Security), Part 4: The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Treaty is Torn.

(7). Pg 7 — The Suspenseful Experiences of a Politician (the Memories of MKADS Gunawardena), Part 11: A Hand Bomb Strike to One of ‘Madam’s’ Meetings (Mrs. Bandaranaike’s).

(8). Pg 8/9 — The Dark Fate of a JVP-er who was Detained in a Torture Base by Forensic Medical Officer Dr. Sumith Ambepitiya.

(9). Pg 10 — The Political Memories of Somapala Gurusinghe, Part 10 — A Uniform for JVP Members.

(10). Pg 11 — The 12th episode of a serial by Chandhi Kodikara: In Search of Freedom (the title of the episode: I Haven’t Been Beaten Like that Ever Before).

(11). Pg 12 — The Political Autograph of the Podi Hamuduruwo of Gangarama, Part 49 — Sir Oliver Goonetillake: the Shadow of DS During the Freedom Movement.

(12). MPs Who Were ‘Sent Out’ after Rioting in the Parliament, Part 9 — “Are You Carrying Me to be Thrown into the Beira Lake?” by Nadeera Madugalle.

(13). The Means of the Left Being Shred into Pieces, Part 6 — Leftist Ideologies that Divided the Left.

(14). The Political career of Tissa Attanayake, Part 23 — A Coup Against the Leader.

(15). The Self-Criticism of the Rebels, Part 10: The War Culture Which Eroded with Discipline (This is a serialized reprint of the self-criticism recently published by the Frontline Socialist Party. The Diyatha editor’s chosen title — The Self-Criticism of the Rebels — is of academic interest).

1971 and 1987-89 have become deposits with romantic tales.

Of the 14 entries, a significant 6 items relate (directly or otherwise) to the JVP and the political violence of 1971 or 1987-89. At least two of these articles centrally draw on torture, incarceration and illegal detention. Killings by authorities responsible for defense is either hinted, or referred to. In article #3, killings by the army as well as by the campus-based JVP rebels are offered.

Of the remaining 8 submissions, a politically correct deal is struck, with 02 of them satiating the ego of the Old SLFP; while a further 02 are dedicated to the austerity of the UNP. One item is given to Lakshman Hulugalle, who is a linchpin of the Rajapakshe Regime. The article on the Schisms of the Left by Terence Purasinghe and the Ambedkar article can be seen as relatively neutral of the definition which I have currently sought with the rest.

The supplement-designer’s concern with the torture culture defined in the light of the twin insurrections demands our attention. In my view, the romantic tales and the suspense these “stories” have to offer work in two ways: primarily,  these “stories” provide a “thriller sensation” for the reading mass; a sensation drawn out of what can be consumed as “our own militant history”. The failed coups are largely remembered by the reader not for the political impetus nor the ideological implications they foreshadowed, but for the “mythical” and “mystical” auras the anarchy, chaos and violence the failed movements enhanced. For the average reader, the “JVP violence” is synonymous with a tirade of evil — this, of course, is how the suppressed coups are historically recorded by the JVP’s victorious opponents. Under these conditions, it is not a sin / evil / voyeurism to re-live the agony of the “victim” — for that pain and torture stimulates and satiates our sado-masochistic impulses.

I say sado-masochistic, for in the viewing experience of these brutal suppression (with details of victims’ nails being pulled out, of them being repeatedly beaten, of their skulls being drilled with rafter nails etc) we are, in tandem, both the sadist and the masochist. Our desire of pain and salvation are simultaneously rendered to.

Yet, again, the pre-occupation with the violence of the Bheeshana Samaya is an “idyllic truth” to the narrative plots of the day. 23 years later, the audience is clearly split between those who, at different levels, had felt the fumes of  anarchy and those who were born and bred in its aftermath. The sensational impact the graphic descriptions would have on the latter category would be as a de-politicized, mythologized “story of a sort”. This is specially so, given the lack of analysis or the want in political assessment which often hinder the narratives. The political violence is naturalized as a de facto of the Age, even where the writer would say that university students were detained by the Army; or that JVP activists were pulled up and killed by governmental proxies. This absence of critical assessment and the naturalization of the violence in particular were both alarming as well as perturbing.

Victims without Victimizers

One may raise the issue as to what the Lankadeepa assumes to gain by this assorting of violence. Is it that the newspaper strives to create some sort of awareness / consciousness among the general body mass? Is Diyatha, then, a recorder of events lest that the contemporary reader should learn / remember? But, then, again, we stumble back for the lack of discussion and analysis the respective submissions fail to enhance. Therefore, one is led to see very little within the editorial scope, beyond the voyeuristic sensation that victimization may engineer in our already suppressed spirits. The use of “history”, then, is not to enlighten, but to garner pleasure and also — as briefly detailed in an earlier passage — to please the numerous mainstream political identities; who, at different points in time, have supplied the current editor with material to organize his contents page.

The preoccupation with violence as a voyeuristic mould — as an “entertainment” item that can thrill and titillate taste buds — is a “media space” that is fast consolidating its official capacity in Sri Lanka. Surely, there must be a sizable number among us who are primarily thrilled by narratives of torture, murder, rape, “sexual perversity” and sodomy, robbery, kidnappings and the like, detailed as they appear in day-to-day life. Nor are newspapers in the likes of Lankadeepa (the daily), Mawubima (the weekly) the only agents who draw juice from crime and criminality to be sold as “news”. An Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Publication entitled Maanchu (The Handcuffs) is weekly published with rapacious accounts of all the top “crime stories” of the day. It is sold for Rupees 30.


2 thoughts on “The Voyeuristic Base Material in Crime for the Lankan Newspaper Industry

  1. The use of “history”, then, is not to enlighten, but to garner pleasure and also — as briefly detailed in an earlier passage — to please the numerous mainstream political identities; who, at different points in time, have supplied the current editor with material to organize his contents

    This is very true, but can’t distinguish what’s the point u wish to make here, on par with the extract you’ve mention on the top regarding the justification of the sexual atrocities committed to the female captives by SL Army ?
    Do u wish to reflect that sentiments are owing to the media sponsored provocative misconceptions of this sort as u’ve described analytically?

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