It’s pretty easy to associate the First Amendment with prepubescent teens using it as a defense to why they can drop racial epithets every five seconds during your recent Xbox Live endeavor. Occasionally, it is mentioned as the endgame in a “Why AMERICA rocks” argument “First Amendment, bitches!” Other time, it is mutilated to fit an agenda – or outright discarded. The use of the First as a blunt instrument to quell opposition and genuine debate is a sad development in our country. But how often have we heard – and said – “Oh well, he can say what he wants, First Amendment, bitches!” It’s pretty easy to lose the significance of the Freedom of Speech clause, being so far removed from the context in which it arose. It’s what makes stories like Lasantha Wickrematunge of Sri Lanka’s controversial Sunday Leader (and when we say controversial, it’s in the critical of the government fashion, not in the salacious reporting fashion) poignant and alarming.
The story is like a film pitch:
“There are two guys, both have been friends for like fuckin’ ages, since the 3rd grade at least. They grow up, filled with hope, idealism and all that other patriotic bullshit. They got dreams, they’re gonna change their country. Gut out corruption, stop human rights violation, the whole fuckin’ shebang. One guy pursues journalism, ruthlessly pursuing stories, no matter where they lead. The other pursues a career in politics. Making a name for himself as a reformer. He climbs his way to the top, winning the presidency (with the strong endorsement of his friend’s newspaper). Quad-venti-half-calf-whole-milk-bone-dry-cap, hon, thanks. The new President falls into corruption and is defensive of anyone who criticizes his government, especially the handling of a rebel force. When the reporters get critical, the President just has them offed. Calls them unpatriotic bastards, and they’re fuckin’ dead. Here’s where it gets fucking great – the journalist friend does some reports critical of his friend, the President. The President has him killed. Fuckin’ crazy right, but just wait, it gets weirder – is that a word? I dunno, oh finally, my quad cap, thanks babe. So anyway, the journalist has written an editorial to be printed if he’s assassinated. He personally addresses his old friend, chastising him for going awry and encourages people to keep fighting the good fight.”
Throw in Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Leonardo Dicaprio as an idealistic young journalist and you have the next Scorcese film.
For Sri Lanka, disappearing people aren’t newsworthy, the Human Rights Council reported a 1,000 cases in 2006. Even the press isn’t safe with with at least 10 journalists killed in the last year. The Defense Minister once went as far to call a UK paper, The Daily Mirror, and threatened to kill a journalist who wrote a human rights piece on Sri Lanka. The possibility of assassination was so likely, that Lasantha Wickrematuge decided to prepare for his death. To most of us, or most of us who think about this, that means getting a will in order, getting the finances set and maybe even planning your funeral. For Mr. Wickrematuge, this meant writing an editorial. Not a typical “goodbye and do well” letter but a harrowing and scathing from-the-grave rebuke of his old friend and current President. Lamenting his fall from his idealistic youth to leading what the opposition leader has called a “junta.” Wickrematuge encourages journalists and his readers to keep working towards a better Sri Lanka. If this was a movie, it’d be cliché, but when some actually gets killed for reporting a story – reporting a story – “keep fighting the good fight” takes on a whole new meaning.
It’s easy to zone out when another CNN report about a despotic regime suppressing free speech and their mysterious disappearances appears. Shrug, say that part of the world is fucked up, thank God you live in the US of A and move on with your life. It may be that we’re desensitized to the thousandth picture of a distraught stranger in a beaten down street or that we have so many of our own issues to worry about. But, when reading Wickrematuge’s editorial, the gaps get filled in. The despotic regimes get more real, and you begin to worry about the other disappearances. The other reporters who are brutally murdered. All the human rights atrocities that happen day in and day out in Sri Lanka and numerous other countries. Everything gets a little more real. The value of the First Amendment, the struggles of others and the perspective gained when looking at our own issues.
Usually this is coupled with a call to action, asking you to donate or give time to help the people of Sri Lanka. Honestly, we’re still looking for a way to help. If you got a good idea, our e-mail is in the sidebar and we’ll let you know if we find anything. For now, let us leave you with this:
The President of Sri Lanka, who has helped engineer Sri Lanka’s rise to the top of human rights watch lists, started his career as a human rights lawyer.
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