On March 16, 2014, Colombo Telegraph, published an article entitled ‘Jayantha Dhanapala Is A Liar; Caught Lying Over Silence On Colombo Telegraph Blocking’. This article was a follow-up of an earlier article on the failure of Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, a member of the Board of Directors of Dialog Axiata PLC, one of Sri Lanka’s premier telecommunications service providers, to prevent Colombo Telegraph from being blocked by that company in Sri Lanka. These articles were followed by a third follow-up piece published on 27 March 2014, with photographic evidence that Colombo Telegraph continues to be blocked. The third article described Dialog as being ‘surreptitious’ in blocking access to the online newspaper, unblocking the site before Dhanapala delivered a speech at public forum organised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), and re-blocking it soon after. In the relative aftermath of this outright accusation of Ambassador Dhanapala as a liar, this article attempts at rethinking the issue, in the backdrop of the broader picture of challenges to the free press in Sri Lanka.
Threats to the press: an old story
Colombo Telegraph has been one among many websites to be blocked in Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa regime, the aversion of which to press freedom is no secret to the world. It is also an online media outlet that has rapidly developed a steady readership from across the broad, garnering substantial interest both inside and outside Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksa administration’s ostrich’s attitude to the press has led to an unprecedented deterioration of press freedom in the island. By no means does this imply that threats to the free press are a singular phenomenon that came to being under the Rajapaksas. They have been around for a long time, and can be considered as a constant presence in Sri Lanka’s socio-political fabric. In the early 1990s, for instance, segments of the press critical of the Premadasa presidency found themselves in mortal danger. Although press freedom relatively prevailed during the decade of Kumaratunga rule, one cannot forget the attacks on the Sunday Leader and the questionable circumstances of the assassination of Rohana Kumara, the Editor of the Satana newspaper. The story of threats to the press under the Rajapaksas is indeed a known story that does not require additional reiteration.
The liberal lobby’s reaction: wanting in critical insights
Making a thought-provoking contribution to the Colombo Telegraph debate, a Sri Lankan social scientist describes Ambassador Dhanapala’s position as ‘ethically untenable’. The fact that the retired diplomat, UN Under Secretary-General, candidate for the post of UN Secretary-General, President of Pugwash International, Governing Board member of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and leading figure in the civil society group Friday Forum is also a member of Dialog’s executive board is put into question, highlighting that a commitment to corporate responsibility is not an excuse to adapt a cautious attitude towards Dialog’s blocking of Colombo Telegraph to its Sri Lankan clientele. At first sight, this view does appear to have a level of credence. Adding further weight to this argument, Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) also maintains that Ambassador Dhanapala ought to choose between his commitment to the Friday Forum and its priorities (which notably include the ‘rule of law’) or a corporate position at the helm of Dialog Axiata PLC.
The above argument may indeed hold ground among some in Sri Lanka’s liberal, urban, English-speaking and Westwardly inclined bubble, but is monumentally inconsistent. In fact, it amounts to the CPA or any non-governmental body in Colombo refusing a substantial grant from a distinguished U.S. funder on the basis of U.S authorities’ dubious practices in Iraq or Guantanamo, or rejecting a generous grant from a Swiss funding mechanism as a mark of protest over the recent passage of controversial immigrant-unfriendly legislation in the Swiss Federal Assembly, or, for that matter, the Swiss Federal Party’s strong anti-immigration lobbying. The fundamental problem with the aforementioned liberal urban, well-travelled and educated lobby is that it largely operates in a highly ‘them-versus-us’ paradigm. This involves perceiving the liberal lobby as on the good side and the state, populist politics, and local entities and individuals that do not position themselves within the urban, liberal, English-speaking social level or its values as the bad side, or the illiberal (and contempt-worthy) ‘other’. The latter contempt also extends to anybody who positions himself or herself on the ‘liberal’ end, but also engages with state-related responsibility or, – as the Dhanapala-Dialog case denotes – with the corporate sector. This ‘them-and-us’ paradigm is also loved by some of the so-called ‘Sri Lanka specialists’ in the West, a mixture of human geographers and anthropologists, who utilise their links to the Sri Lankan NGO/think tank lobbies for their benefit.
In some respects, this outlook may indeed carry a certain level of salience. However, it prevents people from taking a much-needed critical posture on national and international politics, as well as the duplicities and dualities of concepts such as the liberal and the illiberal. It is no secret that Western liberal internationalism, in all its manifestations, is couched in an array of essentially ‘illiberal’ agendas. Accountability, the rule of law, press freedom or any other rights issues are omnipresent universal problems, with varying manifestations from one socio-political space to another.
Putting the Dhanapala-Dialog issue in perspective
Browsing through the existing reports on the Dhanapala-Dialog affair, one cannot help observing the gaping lack of a balanced view beyond the liberal lobby’s critique of Ambassador Dhanapala’s corporate engagements. The issue of blocking online media channels, as well as Ambassador Dhanapala’s low-profile responses to Colombo Telegraph (the above-cited articles quote from email communications between Dhanapala and Colombo Telegraph) need to be put in perspective in the backdrop of the broader picture, especially in terms of the overlapping areas of governance, accountability and corporate culture. It is not Dialog or any other telecommunications service provider that has any interest in blocking news websites in Sri Lanka. Such decisions are the exclusive preserve of governments in power, and to be more precise, of the Executive. A mixture of the provisions of the 1978 Constitution on the Executive branch and the Sri Lankan polity’s clientelist and servile inclinations ensure the concentration of tremendous and overarching influence around the Executive. A ban on independent news sources could not take place in the absence of full executive endorsement. In the present-day context, the Executive most importantly includes the defence high command, with its enhanced ties with certain foreign regimes unkind to press freedom, and willingness to solicit the support of IT specialists from such regimes to keep the press and opponents under constant watch. It is the influence of this executive cohort that prompts firms such as Dialog to ban whatever website they are ordered to ban. Unfortunately, adherence to such requests is primordial to the survival of such businesses, and executive wrath is the last thing they would aspire.
Disciplined reaction and corporate responsibility
In this context, Ambassador Dhanapala’s reaction could only be described as ‘normal’, ‘unsurprising’ and ‘pragmatic’. Dhanapala is only a non-executive, independent member of Dialog’s Board of Directors (very much a ‘briefless-barrister’ role) and certainly not the Board’s sole ideologue or moteur-dirigeant. Board members of this nature are called upon to take decisions on the agendas of the seven or eight board meetings held annually and any ensuing resolutions. It goes without saying that such members are also disconnected from the daily operational details of the company. Someone in such a position can only afford to adopt a diplomatic posture, refrain from openly critiquing the firm, and, for the sake of good conscience, deploy any influence they may have in delving into questionable issues such as the press ban internally, and seeking options of addressing such issues diplomatically, all of which Dhanapala has done. One could notice a very low-profile and cautious undertone in his communications with Colombo Telegraph. The fact that Dialog ‘surreptitiously’ unblocked Colombo Telegraph during Dhanapala’s oration at the aforementioned BASL event suggests that some form of leverage had been levelled at Dialog’s direction, encouraging the company to make an exception. This may not be a measure worthy of any special commendation. However, it is suggestive of the fact that Ambassador Dhanapala has not remained inactive on Dialog’s banning of the free press. All that is doable for someone in his situation is that of exerting mild pressure from the inside, within a very narrow remit of action, and calling upon the company to explore options of at least partially lifting the ban. This, to go by realpolitik, is unlikely to yield positive results, but is the best available alternative. Dhanapala’s critics also condemn his ‘silence’ in the public domain on this issue. Anyone with the slightest acquaintance of Sri Lankan Company Law could confirm that it expressly forbids the public divulging of information gathered as a board member of a company, except in a court of law under oath. If the cue is to be taken from Ambassador Dhanapala’s exemplary diplomatic career, one has to be soft in the head to expect Dhanapala to publicise his communications with Dialog on the issue of banning Colombo Telegraph.
Commitment to best practice, corporate responsibility and the rule of law: not incompatible
The argument that Ambassador Dhanapala, who also stands as a strong advocate of accountability and good governance, should have distanced himself from Dialog looms the debate. Such a decision is indeed an individual one, but how could a decision of this nature be conceptualised in the context of corporate culture? When someone is attached to a leading business firm at its highest levels, one is indeed bound by rights, obligations as well as commitments. If one singular feature characterises Ambassador Dhanapala’s distinguished career in government and beyond, it is a commitment to his duties and obligations. This, by no means implies (as a good few out there seem to concur) a sense of dishonesty, double-standards or a form of cowardice. It is the most diplomatic and disciplined of approaches at one’s disposition, and pursuing it requires an extremely high level of self-control, restraint and self-discipline.
A question worth raising is that of what Colombo Telegraph or any other news outlet could achieve by blatantly castigating a senior citizen (and one of the handful of Sri Lankan diplomats with a substantive international standing) as a ‘liar’. This appellation only amounts to a very puerile understanding of the state of press freedom in the Sri Lankan context. It is reminiscent of the UK’s Daily Mail or Sun-like press-blurbs, and more importantly perhaps, a bleak perception of corporate responsibility. Calling Dhanapala names does not affect in any way the overarching forces that have imposed bans upon news channels such as Colombo Telegraph.
The Friday Forum, largely spearheaded by Ambassador Dhanapala, has been deplorably ineffective in influencing public opinion or government policy. This certainly does not come as a surprise, as the rulers’ strategy is that of obliterating the voice of reason. The likes of the Friday Forum lack the media resources and organisational strength to reach out to the masses. It remains a group of senior citizens (all of them professionals in their respective fields) who call for constructive policy changes. Beyond that narrow remit, there is little a forum of that nature in its present form could perform.
The contemptuous name-calling that targets Ambassador Dhanapala is considerably influenced by his role within the Friday Forum, which enables critics to see a paradox between Dhanapala’s reaction to Dialog’s ban and his advocacy of good governance. This in itself is an erroneous and convoluted assumption. Adherence to a loose-knit group such as the Friday Forum does not deter one from corporate engagements, and when the need be, from adapting an attitude that corresponds to such engagements. Resignations, press-savvy quick decisions and mediatised outbursts of a controversial nature are never the traits of a fine diplomat, which Ambassador Dhanapala has been and continues to be, to the letter.
Swedish Foreign Ministry and Dhanapala: wrong focus
Colombo Telegraph has also cited an article published in a Swedish website that focuses on South Asia that the Swedish Foreign Affairs Ministry is following the matter closely. As an advocate of Nordic norm-entrepreneurship (the substantive critiques of which is a different matter) and press freedom, the Ministry’s and SIPRI’s attention ought to be on the forces that infringe press freedom within Sri Lanka’s ruling regime, and not on a retired diplomat. Dhanapala’s role in a private firm is being mediatised as a near-criminal act, whereas neither Dhanapala nor the company in question are to be blamed for the ban on Colombo Telegraph or any other news channel in Sri Lanka. This is the most farcical aspect of the accusation levelled against Ambassador Dhanapala.
Bans on the free media will exist in Sri Lanka for as long as the prevalent political culture reigns. It is by a more nuanced and painstaking effort at awareness raising, developing pressure groups and supporting existing free media outlets that a difference could be foreseen in the long run.
Name-calling, in the meantime, could only help tarnish the very name-callers.
*Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana completed his PhD in Comparative Politics at the School of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, where he presently holds a Postdoctoral Fellowship. In early 2013, he held a Marie Curie early career Fellowship, hosted at the Centre for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University. A past pupil of Trinity College, Kandy, and an alumnus of Université François Rabelais in Tours (France), Dr Weerawardhana has interned at the United Nations and taught at several French universities including Université Paris 13 and Lille 1.
Amarasiri / April 13, 2014
Dear Chaminda Weerawardhana,
“On March 16, 2014, Colombo Telegraph, an online news outlet published an article entitled ‘Jayantha Dhanapala Is A Liar; Caught Lying Over Silence On Colombo Telegraph Blocking’. “
Question: Did Colombo Telegraph call a Spade, a Spade?
Did CT has support for their position?
After all, did Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler give support for Heliocentric Planetary Model and their position?
Javi / April 13, 2014
You are discussing about rump with rump-
spade a spade what a wait no reply you know why??
In practice they say :
It is easier to get rid of
the desire for money than the desire for fame
– both humbugs of wisdom.
Ali Baba Sabry / April 13, 2014
“It is easier to get rid of the desire for money than the desire for fame – both humbugs of wisdom.”
Sums it all about the famous Jayantha Dont-Know-Pala.
Kumar David / April 13, 2014
“Bans on the free media will exist in Sri Lanka for as long as the prevalent political culture reigns. It is by a more nuanced and painstaking effort at awareness raising, developing pressure groups and supporting existing free media outlets that a difference could be foreseen in the long run”. Your words.
No Dr W; a “nuanced”, meaning mollifying, attitude is to compromise with creeping authoritarianism. No one ever stopped acute political degeneration with balm and emollients; firm public opposition sometimes did.
And also dear intellectual giant (your brief CV at the bottom is sooo impressive), you see dear sir, your “long run” is different from that of many others who see Goth-MR’s days as numbered and attempts to pacify this anger your style as foolish, and Dhanapala style as self-serving.
Palayang yako! / April 13, 2014
Thank you Dr. David for kicking this puffed-up academic’s derriere, even if unjustifiably gently!
Enough of this circumlocution. Dhanapala needs to put up or shut up. I would suggest he shut up and leave Friday Forum and the rest of those hypocrites. That way his income flow will not be negatively impacted!
Booo / April 14, 2014
Kumar David that was a super come back. I fully agree with your points. Isn’t it interesting within a span of a few days we have got articles asking us to give him the benefit of the doubt while other wanting us to give the man the get out of jail card?. May be the good Ambassador should open up and send his own response rather than looking for character references. If not he should ditch Friday forum and join the Friday Farce if there is one!
Saman / April 14, 2014
Isn’t Kumar David working for a University of an “autocratic” , genocidal” state somewhat similar?
Gunasinghe / April 13, 2014
Ayyo Trinity malli !!
“A question worth raising is that of what Colombo Telegraph or any other news outlet could achieve by blatantly castigating a senior citizen (and one of the handful of Sri Lankan diplomats with a substantive international standing) as a ‘liar’. This appellation only amounts to a very puerile understanding of the state of press freedom in the Sri Lankan context. It is reminiscent of the UK’s Daily Mail or Sun-like press-blurbs, and more importantly perhaps, a bleak perception of corporate responsibility. Calling Dhanapala names does not affect in any way the overarching forces that have imposed bans upon news channels such as Colombo Telegraph.”
read the Guardian,
‘Obama is a liar’
Sepala Abeynayaka / April 13, 2014
Dr Chaminda can you suggest any other word instead of ‘Liar’ ? a Crook? or [Edited out]
What Colombo Telegraph said is true;
Dhanapala, one time Under Secretary General, United Nations, was specifically asked to state his position regarding the blocking of Colombo Telegraph given his many media communiques championing the freedom of expression.
Dhanapala, in his communications with Colombo Telegraph uses the word ‘alleged’, implying that he is not certain if indeed Dialog had blocked Colombo Telegraph. However, our investigations reveal that he had told his friends that he could not access Colombo Telegraph. This was 7-10 days prior to our first communication with him. The use of the word is inexplicable since Colombo Telegraph provided him with the technical report which clearly shows that Dialog was indeed blocking Colombo Telegraph. Dhanapala has claimed that he is a regular reader of Colombo Telegraph. As such it would be strange indeed if he, a Director of Dialog, was using another internet service provider to access the site.
He has explained the long delay to respond by claiming that relevant personnel in the senior management of Dialog had been abroad and therefore, presumably, unable to respond. This is strange considering the fact that Dialog is about fast and easy communications services. It is hard to believe that the said personnel did not enjoy roaming facilities or were uncontactable via text or email.
Dhanapala has taken pains to distance himself from the blocking by pointing to the fact that he is an independent, non-executive director of Dialog. He has intimated to Colombo Telegraph that he had been advised that responding to any external communications on company affairs is the sole responsibility of the Executive Management. He has, accordingly, requested Colombo Telegraph to raise issues with the same.
Colombo Telegraph, however, offers that Dhanapala was advised in all likelihood not by the Executive Management but by Chandra Jayaratne. Colombo Telegraph concludes thus considering the fact that Jayaratne, responding to a Colombo Telegraph query on the subject gave the same answer, word-to-word, that Dhanapala gave Colombo Telegraph. It cannot be a coincidence that Dhanapala, breaking a silence of almost a month, uses the same words that Jayaratne uses in an email to Colombo Telegraph, sent within a few hours after Jayaratne sent his observations.
When Colombo Telegraph inquired from Jayaratne whether he had in fact advised Dhanapala, the former did not offer a denial. This leads us to conclude that in Dhanapala has been extremely devious and deceitful in his communications with Colombo Telegraph, all the more disturbing because his conduct does not sit well with his rhetoric with regard to freedom of expression.
Colombo Telegraph reproduces below all relevant communications with both Dhanapala and Jayaratne so the reader can draw his or her own conclusions on the former’s behavior in this matter.
Seetha Kanya / April 13, 2014
Trinitones to save Trinitones LOL – this article by Dr Chaminda is an example of conflict of interest itself.
Trinity old boy Dhanapala also the Chairman of the UN University Council and Dr Weerawardhana has interned at the United Nations.
Dr Weerawardhana, you should declare the conflict of interest first!!
Dev / April 13, 2014
LOL I was actually thinking the same thing.
What I can’t understand is his continued silence, and I concur with David above, it is time to come out and give a clear statement.
aney ban ! / April 13, 2014
better for danapala to stay as money,prestige,power overrides ethics in lanka….and he must be needing the money ! If danapala’s buddies could get a dialog or any good board seat they would too!
kaputakukula / April 13, 2014
These similar so-called educated fellows in Sri Lanka are nothing but ‘low-price tagged’ rascals who do anything for money. If you need proof, look at G.L. Peiris you know I am telling the truth.
george jilmart / April 13, 2014
Dr CW, your understanding of the role of an independent director on the board of a corporate is misguided and blatantly incorrect. Independent directors are expected to play an oversight role over the activities of the working directors to ensure that these directors are carrying out corporate policies and conducting the affairs of the company in conformance with laws and regulations, social responsibility and ethical behavior. JD cannot in any way be excused for remaining silent on the banning of CT websites especially if he is also professing to be a champion of democracy, free speech, citizens rights and good governance. By Dialog blocking CT, JD is condoning this behavior and it is a lame duck excuse to say that he is not involved in the day to day operations of Dialog. Obviously he does not have the balls to stand up for what is right. I would like JD to take to heart what the Lord Buddha said: Believe nothing, no matter where you have read it or who has said it, even if it be me who has said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense. JD, cut the crap and be guided by your conscience. We would like to have an opinion from you, honest and frank, on why you continue to sit on the board of Dialog. I have cancelled having Dialog as my service provider today and urge all others in Sri Lanka to do the same so that they get the message. Two things that citizens should do is boycott Dialog and boycott buying pro government controlled newspapers.
Crazyoldmansl / April 13, 2014
The question here is not source of funds but the position taken and this tirade by this DOSTHORA CHAMINDA is nothing more than an attempt to muddy the water so that his slimy brother can slither away from public scrutiny, condemnation and definition as the two timing scumbag he is.
If the position taken is consistent with ones stated commitments – say for instance to the implementation and defense of the doctrine of human rights – then integrity and credibility are maintained. To claim a commitment to a position and then sit on the very board that acts against that position is the height of cynicism and looks like nothing more than a vindication of the old adage “he who pays the piper calls the tune”.
I have always known this Dhanapala as a slimy character who not only plays the tune of those who pay him but happily dances to it as well.
Crazyoldmansl / April 13, 2014
No George it will not work that way-not in Sri Lanka. It is better to call on Sinhala Buddhists to boycott dialog for having a Friday Forum member on its board. That’s the way Sinhala Buddhists think and they are the majority.
Rita / April 13, 2014
This writer missed the whole point and just trying to pay back Dhanapala.
The issue here is Dhanapala / Dialog must accept that they are blocking webs illegally. Of course government is the main culprit, but how can people like Dhanapala authorised such an illegal action?
My understanding is Dhanapala has no right talk about good governance now.
Chinthaka Silva / April 13, 2014
Grow up Dr Weerawardhana!!!
Nimal / April 13, 2014
Muddying the water is exactly what Chaminda W. is trying to do. Did Dhanapala say a lie or not? In that case what’s wrong with calling him a liar? Any ordinary person who tells lie can be called a liar but not Dhanapala because of his status? Is that how justice works for the Trinitians?No one would want to read all his rambling. All his credentials have nothing to do with this simple political and ethical matter at stake here. Pl. ask Dhanapala to just state what is his position on this issue of conflict of interest and act on that. That will simply solve the issue. You don’t need to write another PhD on this issue!
Deshapriya / April 14, 2014
really Chaminda, let me guess, you are kissing up to Mr Dhanapala in the hope of a recommendation so you can start your UN career? My friend an internship at the UN is simply NOT something a respectable adult professional advertises as an achievement. Remember these are unpaid short stints!
Shyamon Jayasinghe. Melbourne / April 14, 2014
I have known Jayantha to be a most cultured and dignified gentleman of high ranking. This is, however, not quite material in a making a judgment on this issue. What is material is a statement from Jayantha himself.Sans such a statement, any judgment is vacuous. “Whereof thou cannot speak thereof thou must be silent.”
Paisa Must Appah / April 14, 2014
“Whereof thou cannot speak thereof thou must be silent.”
Verily, thou cannot speak because if thou thou spake, thou will be exposed as a bloody liar.
Nimal / April 15, 2014
Chaminda Pus Wedilla!
Nimal / April 18, 2014
The following is a comment left at Ground Views (GV) (groundviews.org) where Chaminda Puswedilla’s above article has been published however, simply giving the ULR without informing the reader that it cannot be accessed via this ULR from Sri Lanka. It is not clear whether GV usually publishes responses to articles published on other news sites as it has done on this occasion. It used to claim that it publishes only original articles.
Julianna Sunfeld • 4 days ago
Now that I’ve read the essays on Colombo Telegraph– what a pity its blocked, I’d say that Dr. Weerawardhana seems even slicker that Dr. Dhanapala, who hasn’t really said very much about this. What Dr. W seems to saying is that Friday Forum, which I thought was a serious group of right thinking professionals, is but according to Dr. W, “a loose knit group” that doesn’t seem to have much gravity. More, “..[a]dherence to a loose-knit group such as the Friday Forum does not deter one from corporate engagements, and when the need be, from adapting an attitude that corresponds to such engagements.” So ones “corporate engagements” come first, and those engagements shape ones “attitude.” Over on the CT site lots of people had commented on how much ‘company directors’ get paid, and also pointed out that the whole point of ‘non executive, independent’ directors is that they can be ethical guides to the company. But seems like the first puts ‘paid’ to the second. (is that a pun?).