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Sunday, 08 May 2016

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In-House brawl: 'debate' or crime?

Brawls in the national legislature are not new in Sri Lanka, or in other parts of the world. Interestingly, such parliamentary violence is yet to be seen in those Western countries from where this modern form of representative democracy originated.

It is not often that the fisticuffs get so violent that the injured need hospital treatment. Such extreme triage is more likely to occur in the far more frequent domestic violence that features in the family life of our nation. In that form of 'in-house' violence, it is women - often, the wife - who are usually at the receiving end, whereas in our severely gender imbalanced national legislature, it is the men who injure each other.

Indeed, many battered women may prefer the lighter violence of the House to the trauma of the, often daily, assaults they experience at home. The entry of more women to the House, however, depends on the future measures that these same MPs may take - if ever - to enhance the political representation of women. It is feasible that a more equitable gender representation in the House would see a body of legislators less prone to beating up each other.

The Government is to be commended for quickly taking the lead to deal with the perpetrators of last week's violence in the House although the punitive measure recommended invites controversy.

Those tireless campaigners against the infinitely bigger social problem of domestic violence in the household and family may wonder at this brawling in another kind of 'house'. After all, it is these very legislators who indulge in fisticuffs in a public institution who have to address the nation's concerns about that far more serious problem of domestic violence and pass legislation to mitigate, if not prevent it.

The citizenry is probably watching developments in last week's in-House brawl with some scepticism given the mild 'sentencing' of some key brawlers with mere suspension from Parliament sessions for a week. Citizens may wonder how these (male) Honourable Members, being chastised thus, would, then, pass legislation for sterner punishment of the (mostly male) perpetrators of domestic violence, currently, an urgent national problem.

The irony is that what occurred in Parliament last week, resulting in the serious injury of one Member, would, in any other 'house' or home or other location, be regarded as a crime of 'assault' requiring a criminal investigation by the police, prosecution of the perpetrators in accordance with the law and, appropriate conviction.

Does this offence require different treatment because it occurred on the floor of the Parliament chamber in the course of a debate? Campaigners against domestic violence would be forgiven if they wonder whether this 'exemption' parallels the attempt to get exemption by many perpetrators of domestic violence on the basis that such domestic violence is a 'private' matter that is outside the purview of the law. Very often such an argument is heard in cases of sexual assault within marriage.

The Bar Association has already, correctly, called for sterner measures to be taken to prevent such uncouth and criminal behaviour in Parliament in the future.

That future depends not only on punitive measures but also on longer term preventive measures that ensure that those elected to Parliament are those who have been nurtured for a more civilised politics with more altruistic and charitable motivation.

True, it is difficult for aspiring Sri Lankan politicians to opt for a quieter, less sensational and less forceful political behaviour, when, for example, they see the style of politics practised and encouraged by some presidential aspirants in countries usually looked up to as 'model' democracies. But this is where we, Sri Lankans, need to take pride in our indigenous spiritual traditions of South Asia and build a political culture that genuinely reflects the yardstick of the Dharma that some of us like to boast about.


Whose 'media freedom'?

May 3, is the day the United Nations has set aside to celebrate World Press Freedom Day. It was duly observed last week by a few organisations of media professionals and concerned citizens' groups. Even though the Deputy Minister for Mass Media sacrificed his speaking time in Parliament to join a panel discussion at one such event, on the whole, the news media barely reported these events.

And this happened in a week in which controversy broke out over a letter issued to the news media by the Secretary to the Ministry of Mass Media. At the same time, none other than the Prime Minister thought fit to criticise some recent media reportage. That the PM had the interests of a dynamic news media at heart became clear when he rejected the action of the Media Ministry Secretary. True to their market orientation, the news media industry was quick to sensationalise both the Prime Minister's criticisms of the media as well as the erroneous action by the Ministry Secretary. The Premier must be commended for his rapid response to the bureaucratic faux pas, thereby affirming his government's liberal approach to media matters.

However, while the news media milked the Premier's remarks and the bureaucratic faux pas to their maximum sensational value, these very media practitioners largely ignored the events to mark World Press Freedom Day at which media practice issues of all kinds, including the issues raised by the Premier and the Ministry Secretary, were discussed and highlighted by concerned citizens and activist media professionals.

The news media enterprises have undergone many tribulations even as they exploit the market to the maximum for both corporate profit as well as political advantage for whatever interest group they may represent. The media workers themselves have suffered the most within the industry with some bravely risking life and career advancement or even giving their lives in upholding professional standards and defending the public interest.

The industry and professionals need to understand, that what happens in society are not purely objects for reportage. The social reality is also where the news media and its practitioners live and thrive. The news media community, then, is an interested party in the national context and should not be coy in engaging as an actor even as it reports the action. That is how media freedom is protected.

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