Island editor gets Prairie Roses for exemplary editorial writing
Posted on November 20th, 2015
By Shelton A. Gunaratne
[Dr. Gunaratne, BA (Ceylon), MA (Oregon), PhD (Minnesota), is the lead author and editor of the book “Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach” (New York & London: Routledge). 240 pp.]
MOORHEAD. MN — Prabath Sahabandu, 53 (b. 29 Oct. 1962), had been the features editor of The Island, the flagship English daily started by Upali Wijewardene in 1981, since 1992. When Gamini Weerakoon stepped down as the Island editor at the turn of the century, Prabath became his successor. By 2016, Prabath will have completed a quarter-century as a senior journalist of an English daily in Sri Lanka. My bet is that he will probably beat HAJ Hulugalle’s 20 years (1931-1950) and Manik de Silva’s 15 years (1981-1996) as an editor of a single English-language daily.
Prabath joined the Island editorial team in 1990, in his final year at the University of Peradeniya where he got his bachelor of arts. While working as a journalist, he continued his intellectual pursuits by completing a graduate diploma in sociology.
Prabath was also the recipient of an Asia Foundation Berkeley Fellowship in 1992 that enabled him to study and travel in the United States for eight months, as well as a two-week Cochram Fellowship in 2000.
A “ragging” anecdote
A batch mate of his, Malinda Seneviratne, the current editor of The Nation, recounts an anecdote that reveals the prankster characteristic of Prabath and his peculiar sense of humor implicitly reflected in his editorials, which I reckon was the reason for an online petition calling for his ouster.
Although he berates the custom of ragging on university campuses [as evident in one editorial that says, “Higher education is losing its meaning with universities becoming empty shells. Ragging only gives an impetus to education sliding down a slippery slope” (Editorial, 24 May 2007)], this anecdote shows that in his final year at Peradeniya, Prabath was a mild practitioner of the custom:
Accosting a freshman at the university library, Prabath drew the attention of the freshman to an elderly man browsing at a bookshelf.
“Do you know who that man is?” Prabath inquired from the freshman.
“No, honorable senior,” the freshman replied.
“That itself shows how ignorant you are!” Prabath reprimanded. That’s Ediriweera Sarachchandra. Have you heard of him?”
“Yes, honorable senior.”
“Do you know what he is doing there?”
“No, honorable senior.”
“He is studying for a repeat.”
Prabath followed that answer with a short lecture on the importance of attending lectures, submitting tutorials and studying.
“He is in his 70s and still hasn’t completed all his repeats. Do you want to end up like that?”
“No, honorable senior.”
The same sense of humor implicit in this “ragging” anecdote is reflected in much of his editorial writing, as I shall try to show below. It is very common among human beings to show a discrepancy between advocacy and practice. Only adherence to mindfulness journalism can reduce this gap. But my assessment of Prabath in this essay is based primarily on the forthrightness and the logic he uses to derive his conclusions, rather than his personal behavior.
An editorial analysis
Let me cite a few samples from some of his recent editorials:
- Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa turns 70 today. Candles must now be costing him more than the cake as Bob Hope famously said. Nothing hurts a politician who has savored power more than being voted out. Mahinda made the mistake of banking on people’s gratitude to win elections without giving a tinker’s cuss about allegations of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, abuse of power, scandals etc. against his government. (18 Nov. 2015)
I am impressed with Prabath’s ability to use a famous Western comedian’s sarcastic idiom on the cost of candles to convey the former president’s misuse of state money for his personal benefit and conspicuous consumption. He makes his editorial style unique by “resurrecting” archaic Anglo-Scottish slang “a tinker’s cuss,” which means a metal worker’s curse), and his addiction to the repetitive use of another archaic U.S. slang “hunky-dory,” which means feeling okeydokey at home-base. Thus, although he shows his knowledge of Anglo-American classics and turns them around to give a local touch, his approach does not help the development of a culturally indigenous English journalism in Sri Lanka. My analysis shows that Prabath can annoy the reader by the overuse of archaic slang adjectives.
- But all is not hunky-dory. Lake House remains under state control and there have been instances where journalists walked out or were thrown out which unfortunately the Editors Guild had not even considered. (Editorial, 18 June 2002)
- But, as we said in these columns on Saturday, victory, however impressive it may be, does not mean everything is hunky-dory for the government. There is a limit to marketing the war effort. (Editorial, 25 Aug. 2008)
Prabath is having fun with peculiarities inherent in English by playing with awkward slang even with a top-of-the-news topic like the bloody end of the hoity-toity LTTE top brass–the putative “Big Tigers” who ultimately showed themselves to be a bunch of “fraidy cats,” more like “gender-confused hyenas.”
- So, in the end the hoity-toity Big Tiger died a ‘fraidy cat.’ Having killed thousands of people and driven a similar number of his own brainwashed cadres to suicide in vain, Prabhakaran the self-deified warlord together with a group of his trusted lieutenants including his son died a violent death at the hands of the army, while fleeing the battlefront in an ambulance leaving his followers to their fate. That he was a coward of the first order was no secret but hardly anyone expected him to die in such a shameless manner. Where was his cyanide capsule? … Prabhakaran’s downfall had to do with hubris, racial hatred and unspeakable cruelty. Blunders of successive pusillanimous and gullible governments stood him in good stead. … At least now those who supported the LTTE for whatever reason should realize that the outfit they backed consisted of a pack of gender-confused hyenas and not ‘Tigers’ as such. (Editorial, 19 May 2009)
- Meanwhile, there is no reason why the government should take out a sledgehammer to deal with Savage. Let the hoity-toity, curmudgeonly, cold and prejudiced diplomatic Scrooges be forgiven on this blessed day. Merry Christmas! (Editorial, 25 Dec. 2009)
- So, henceforth, we must stop genuflecting before hoity-toity government worthies or deities to have our potholed and waterlogged roads repaired. (Editorial, 28 May 2010)
The above samples are sufficient to get an idea of Prabath’s style of editorial writing, wherein he skillfully uses archaic English slang to rejuvenate and enhance the quality of diction and the power of English presented in active voice. He deserves recognition, not for his “ragging” style of questioning and hectoring, but his impartial and stinging attacks on corruption and hypocrisy often associated with the hoity-toity, derived from the archaic verb hoit (“to play the fool; to behave thoughtlessly and frivolously”). Sooth to say that Prabath’s adversaries would see him as a high-ranking member of the hoity-toity club.
In a very recent editorial, Prabath hectored:
- Wielding unbridled executive powers is like chasing the dragon. Being out of power or going political cold turkey is torture for politicians. … Late Presidents, J. R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa, in spite of their failings and abuse of power, were less hypocritical than their successors anent the executive presidency. They neither pretended to have any aversion to that institution nor offered to scrap it. They made no bones about their desire to arrogate to themselves more and more power. … All presidents have promised to abolish the executive presidency since 1994. President Chandrika Kumaratunga derisively called that institution a bibikkama (a kind of cheap cake popular among ordinary people) and made a vow to do away with it. But, that became one of her broken promises. Her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa also came to power, promising to abolish the executive presidency. Instead, he kept himself busy enhancing powers vested therein. … There is no bigger fool than a person who dupes himself into believing that politicians in this country ask for mandates to serve the public and are averse to excessive power. (Editorial, 19 Nov. 2015)
What readers think
Merrick Gooneratne places Prabath foremost among the editors whose editorials on the feasibility of defeating the LTTE terrorists “were absolute masterpieces.” He adds, “There was no mudslinging or personal vilification or slander or devious attempts to create rifts within the defense establishment.” (Island, 2 June 2009) This implicitly tells us that Prabath attempts to observe the ethical (sila) principles of correct action, correct speech, and correct livelihood associated with mindful journalism.
In a recent essay, I observed: “The practice of mindful journalism is the way to go. It will dissuade the journalist from hurting others making him/her the judge of what the public should know. It will free the state from curbing freedom of expression. It will help remove the five nivaranas–sensory desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness, and doubt—from afflicting our social mind. And, as the Island editorial writer Prabath Sahabandu is fond of saying, everything is likely to be “hunky dory.” (Lankaweb, 9 May 2015)
During the last decade, The Island has infrequently published several of my features and opinion pieces, and this year it gave me an opportunity to explain my concept of mindful journalism. Although I have never met Prabath, my correspondence with him as a free-lance writer is that he is a reluctant communicator who does not respond to queries because he is unable to empathize with those people who seek his responses regarding his editorial decisions.
Petition to oust Prabath
In the context of my personal experience, I was not surprised when I learned about an online petition to replace him as editor of the Island (posted on Lankaweb, 8 April 2013) during my most recent brief visit to Sri Lanka. Buddhism tells us unequivocally that every namarupa (composite of the Five Aggregates), except those who have succeeded in reaching arhanthood by overcoming all their defilements (kleshas) cannot be immune from suffering until they stop the rotation of their bhavacakra (wheel of becoming) caught in the vortex of cyclic existence (samsara). Irrespective of the veracity of its contents, the petition shows that Prabath has antagonized some of his co-workers by demonstrating a gap between his exemplary advocacy of ethical standards and his disposition to intentionally hurt others. There cannot be smoke without a fire. Knowing full well that every intentional action begets a reaction (the law of karma that he should be familiar with as a Sinhalese Buddhist/Christian from the Galle District), only he can douse the fire by mindful concentration on the ti-lakkhana—anatta (no selfness), anicca (inconstancy) and dukkha (suffering). The petition alleged that the Island, under the direction of Prabath for the past 10 years, has shown a “callous disregard for unbiased coverage of both news and features.” The thrust of the complaint becomes clear in the paragraph below:
- There is never a balance in opinions published and continuous exposure is only given to writers that seek to portray Sinhala Buddhists as “chauvinists” and “violators of peace and harmony.” Thus, the editor is contributing towards giving a totally false image of the Sinhala Buddhists and he does not entertain any right of replies. This in turn gives the wrong image internationally. (Lankaweb, 8 April 2013)
My analysis of the Island editorials, however, does not give credence such an extreme allegation. The complaint is more likely the result of the “ragging” style of hectoring that Prabath uses for writing his editorials using archaic Anglo-American slang that is alien to the Sinhalese Buddhists with a bare knowledge of “Singlish.” His predilection to use terse English to drive home his convictions can tick off Sinhala Buddhist extremists who regard Buddhism as a “religion” rather than a phenomenology that pertains to everyone in the globe, not just who identify themselves as “Sinhala Buddhists.”
Mindful journalism is not a journalism intended to propagate Buddhist “religion” in the world. It uses the principles of the Middle Path (magga) embedded in the Four Noble Truths–the crux of Buddhism the Four Noble Truths to produce journalism/news as a social good rather than as a commodity. If Prabath could transform himself as a journalist with the characteristics of the famous Disney character Winnie the Pooh, the supreme embodiment of the ziran-wuwei (spontaneity-nonaction) way of life –sensitive, caring, warm and giving–and make a concerted effort to train and transform others in the UNL newsroom — those with the characteristics of the production-oriented Rabbit, the connection-oriented Tigger, and the status quo-oriented Eeyore– in the same direction, the prospect of quality journalism is unlikely to materialize.
(For a belter understanding of the diversity of journalistic characteristics that exemplify the variety of journalisms, from serious to sleazy, I would refer the reader to Kortman and Eckstein’s 2004 work, Winnie the Pooh: A ‘honey jar’ for me and for you.)
My hunch is that Prabath has the characteristics of a Tigger–spontaneous, playful, witty, fun loving, and energetic, but irresponsible and disruptive. But despite his negatives, I cannot deprive him of the honor of selection as the recipient of the November 2015 award of Prairie Roses for his contribution to improving editorial writing in Sri Lanka.
So, here we go again: Thumbs up for Prabath Sahabandu, my counterpart from the Southern Province who loves to rag but is anti-ragging, who claims to be a vegetarian and a non-smoker
(but we don’t know what he does in private)! I do not wish to be your adversary and be the target of your stinging hunky-dory, hoity-toity editorials. But I am confident that you can become one of the country’s most potent journalists of the digital era, if you can climb down your ivory tower and embrace mindful journalism.