By Rasika Jayakody –
What was reported in western media in the aftermath of CHOGM sheds light on serious lapses on the part of the government in terms of ‘Perception Management’ among the international community.
One has to admit the fact that the Sri Lankan government stepped into hosting CHOGM and threw itself into the limelight on a relatively bad wicket, so to speak, vis-à-vis the strong propaganda initiated by pro-LTTE Diaspora demonizing the Sri Lankan government and armed forces over what happened during the final phase of war.
From the very outset, the Sri Lankan government had to defend its position against serious allegations which – if mismanaged – would result in an international war crimes investigation. Any such international inquiry will be certainly influenced by western super powers who are strongly gravitated towards the pro-LTTE Diaspora, narrowing the chances of a fair and impartial hearing. In that context, it is important for the government to understand the gravity of the problem and checkmate the western super powers who are hell-bent on flogging Sri Lanka. Now that requires a lot of diplomacy, a great deal of perception management and sanity in terms of handling international media.
When considering the developments on the ground particularly during CHOGM, it is not so difficult to fathom that the government is just “firefighting” and there is no concerted effort to counter scathing attacks on Sri Lanka by a certain section of western media. There seems to be no robust PR plan and almost everything that comes from the government as counter-arguments, is ad-hoc. Right people are not at the right places, and wrong people are making things much more difficult for the government.
One such example was the behavior of Parliamentarian A.H.M. Azwer who went berserk at the press conference, convened by the Commonwealth Spokesman. He acted like a bull in the china shop although the points he made, made a great deal of sense. But, that was not the right place to raise such issues and Azwer was certainly not the right guy! In the end, Azwer, who is a national list parliamentarian representing the ruling party and a Presidential Advisor, looked like a jester in the eyes of the entire world, putting the Sri Lankan government in a highly embarrassing position.
Azwer’s bull in the china shop behavior should be weighed against the manner in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa handled unexpected questions thrown at him by Channel 4’s Jonathan Miller on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Business Forum. The President greeted him in a very polite manner and handled his questions in a fairly civilized way, even though it was not the place and time for questioning of that nature. Although such individual gestures alone will not rescue Sri Lanka from the disadvantageous position it is in at the moment, it is commendable how the Sri Lankan President immediately reacted to a journalist who always exhibited a hostile approach against Sri Lanka. This is exactly what the large majority of ministers and the top echelons of the Rajapaksa administration do not seem to understand!
It is in this light that we have to understand the importance of Dr. Chris Nonis’s seven minute brief interview with CNN. He faced the questions with great fluency and his answers were loud, clear and convincing. He knew what he was talking about and never raised his voice or resorted to a high-pitched tone, giving way to “overwhelming patriotism”. It is important to know that Dr. Nonis did not make earth-shattering revelations in his interview, but simply reiterated what the government has been saying all along. The only difference is his answers were well-structured and well-organized, and there was no sense of arrogance in his demeanour. This was the striking difference between him and the other government representatives who shared their views with international media on behalf of the Sri Lankan government.
Handling international media plays an important part in preventing an international inquiry. To perform that operation with sanity and prudence, the government has to first understand what its core message is. Secondly, there should be a central mechanism to handle the dissemination of the message, without accommodating any act of jumping the gun by any individual representing the government. Thirdly, there should be right people at right places to carry out the operation in a well-planned and systematic manner, without digression or shifting the focus from time to time. And without having such a robust system in place, the government has only meager chances of achieving success.
Therefore, time is ripe for the government to position the likes of Dr. Nonis at right places, as the behavior of certain government representatives and spokespersons who deal with international media resembles the jataka tale where a foolish soldier used a sword to get rid of an insect that was resting on the king’s neck!
*Rasika Jayakody is a Sri Lankan journalist who may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org