Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lankans Beware; Do You Want Yesteryear’s Rejects?

By Vishwamithra

“I don’t think the intelligence reports are all that hot. Some days I get more out of the New York Times.” ~John F Kennedy                          

Mahinda Rajapaksa has shown, if the reports are correct, that he has not changed at all; no repentance, no apologies and definitively not divorced from untruths.  

Following is a report as it appeared in the local news media: “Colombo: The New York Times on Tuesday said that two of its correspondents in Sri Lanka have been threatened by the loyalists of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa after it published an investigative report last week on China allegedly funding his 2015 election campaign. The report alleged that Rajapaksa’s campaign took millions in bribes from a Chinese state-owned company which built the controversial Hambantota port on the island.

In a press statement, the NYT said that a group of Sri Lankan parliamentarians allied to Rajapaksa held a news conference recently to publicly criticize the two journalists who contributed logistical assistance to a rigorously reported and accurate investigation into the Hambantota port, published by it on June 26. “It is unacceptable for journalists to be intimidated this way. This action appears intended to silence critics and curb press freedoms, and ultimately deprive Sri Lankans of information in the public interest,” it added.

During the 2015 Sri Lankan elections, large payments from the Chinese port construction fund flowed directly to campaign aides and activities for Mr. Rajapaksa, who had agreed to Chinese terms at every turn and was seen as an important ally in China’s efforts to tilt influence away from India in South Asia, the report had said. Rajapaksa, who ruled the island nation for a decade from 2005 to 2015, had dismissed the report as false propaganda against him by the government.

If Mr Rajapaksa takes issue with Times reporting, we have encouraged him to contact senior editors at the New York Times rather than intimidating Sri Lankan journalists, the release issued by NYT International Editor Michael Slackman said and urged the Sri Lankan authorities to ensure safety of journalists working for NYT or any other news organization.

Meanwhile, Rajapaksa’s son Namal, a lawmaker, came out in his support claiming that “at no time” his father intimidated the journalists. ‘Just like the press has a right to criticize politicians, don’t we also have the right to ‘publicly criticize’ reporting we believe to be faulty?’ he tweeted. During Rajapaksa’s decade-long rule, 17 journalists and media employees were reportedly murdered in the country”.

This is a grim reminder of the ‘state and privately-sponsored’ and countless injustices and slaughters committed on free media personnel by a ruling clan that was led by the Rajapaksa family and their corrupt and coldblooded subordinates. If the Rajapaksas attempt to play around with New York Times, one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world, and hallucinate about coming out scot-free, think again. 

All authoritarian rulers hate free media. Free media is a thorn in their flesh that is discharging a stench of deceit, corruption and political malpractice. And that is one institution the current Sri Lankan government has, among others, re-established after assuming power in 2015. The unprecedented freedom and liberty to criticize and hurl many a barb, either true or otherwise, justifiably or unjustifiably, at the present rulers exercised by the current crop of media personnel cannot be underestimated, nor should it be taken for granted. That fierce truth is being established and re-established, again and again by the successor-government to the Rajapaksa junta. And that government is being led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. That truth has no equal in modern post-Independence Sri Lanka. With the overflow of some outrageous material in the social media, which seems to have no ethical or legal boundaries, the alertness of politicians has turned sharper and they too have resorted to creating and maintaining their own Twitter and Facebook accounts. 

It is against such an enlightened backdrop the Rajapaksas and their notorious henchmen are alleged to have gone back to their usual pastime of harassing and intimidating media personnel who have chosen to exercise their fundamental right and obligation of writing and expressing their informed and educated opinions on matters they choose to do so. In that vein, media personnel are scrupulously aware that truth and freedom are valuable commodities that should not be bartered away for a mere grant of a laptop computer or a free meal at the Temple Trees. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right.

US journalists are used to exercising their right to seek out the truth about any and all matters relating to any and all. Their right to Freedom of Expression is guaranteed by the First Amendment to their Constitution. Nurtured by such a free will, the journalists attached to New York Times newspaper would not publish anything that is not confirmed by at least three independent sources. In such a circumstance, the anger and ire emanating from the Rajapaksas is natural and precariously centered on convincing themselves more than anything else. 

Yet, if the allegations are found to be true and bearing evidentiary facts, the Rajapaksas have done unto themselves some irreparable damage in that, such action by them have cemented the arguments and accusations about their dishonorable rule and the immense wealth they are alleged to have accumulated for themselves and their close political adjutants. But what rises from the New York Times report is not really the content of such allegations; the rash and ill-thought out response by them is more applicable in the current context of the local political dynamics. It was indeed a forbidding reminder of their past ruling enterprise. The bold and ugly reaction to reportage of an alleged political malpractice and self-enrichment via a foreign country and tolerance of an external government which is tantamount to betrayal of the fundamental oath of the office of presidency should be told again and again so that the local population would be more enlightened when they ponder as to for which party they intend to vote next time.

Yet one must bear in mind that United States of America (USA) as a foreign government also has an huge amount of vested interest in exposing such a vile act of corruption. That vested interest drives the US government, as the only superpower in the twenty first century, to unforeseen lengths to curb the influence, if any, of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the only Asian competitor to the USA, militarily and economically. The geopolitics of this convoluted equation is unfathomably deep and inexplicably consequential. Yet the purpose of this column is not to examine the intricate policy differences and rhetorical heat between USA and PRC. This column is making an effort to tell a different yet more rivetingly relevant and dangerous phenomenon, if allowed to go unspoken of and uninvestigated, which poses a clear and present danger to the advances our country has made during the last two and half years in media freedom, in particular, and freedom of expression in general.

The audacity of the Rajapaksas to ask the local voter population to forget their past malpractices and give them another chance is laughable on one hand and terribly treacherous on the other. In their haste to rid themselves of the malevolent accusations catalogued in the New York Times piece, they had apparently resorted to their time-tested means of challenging the accusations- physical thuggery and intimidation. The rash rush to his defense, Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to have committed an unpardonable act of idiocy and misplaced sense of arrogance. Arrogance, if shown in a more appropriate circumstance, could be forgivable, taking into account the position one held in the past and the unforgiving fate which intervenes that process and takes that position away from the holder. Mahinda Rajapaksa may have lost his cool (not that he was known for any cool and stoicism) and in that status of being out of control of his wits and steadiness, ordered his thuggish supporters to do the needful. 

Therein lies the danger; therein dwells the evidence of the cruel and naked intentions of authoritarian rulers. The Stalinist principle of physically destroying political enemies has been proven politically wrong and morally reprehensible. What reinforces the desire to pursue power in these power-hungry politicos is the apathy on the part of the general population. That apathy kills, unless it is immediately recognized as sheer impotence and not equanimity as it may have been interpreted.

Leonard Woolf, about the state of circumstance when Punchi Menika had her first experience of sexual intercourse with Babun in his illustrious novel Village in the Jungle, wrote most elegantly and his description of the near rape through which a young man, Babun, claims Punchi Menika as his mate…’a cry broke from her, in which, joy and desire mingled with the fear and the pain’. A majority of Sri Lankans had the desire and joy when the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) was won but when the so-called fathers of the victory passed the 18th Amendment to our Constitution and began toying with lives of the average men and women, they realized that that desire and joy inexplicably mingled with fear and pain.

*The writer can be contacted at                                                

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