Colombo Telegraph

The NYT Story Unstripped Much More Than It Intended

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

If not the Rajapaksas, their supporters are certainly perturbed by the New York Times (NYT) article on wrongdoing regarding the China Harbour Engineering Company, which is one of China’s largest state-owned enterprises. The NYT piece has since been dismissed by the Rajapaksas, their spokespersons and the Chinese Embassy in Colombo.

The NYT has claimed that the company had paid large sums of money to the election campaign of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Chinese Embassy claims that there was no wrongdoing and that the company was compliant ‘with the laws of the market from beginning to end, reflected by the principle of wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.’

The NYT story emphasizes two concerns. First, that Rajapaksa was corrupt, and secondly, it was all a part of China’s strategy to have a port in the Indian Ocean, a key element of its ‘string of pearls’ strategy to control the seas.

First let’s discuss these concerns and the self-righteousness of that newspaper. If ‘bribe’ is an issue, well then the NYT could have also written about the USA pumping bucks into an election campaign that would cough up a plaint president in Sri Lanka. Former Secretary of State John Kerry unapologetically acknowledged that the US did fund that campaign. It is also known that the State Department routinely funds agents and agencies in Colombo engaged in political activities whose objectives coincide with those of the USA. Do we even need to go into how the USA has helped install dictators, military juntas and other ‘friends’ in countries all over the world?

The NYT never had a problem with such intervention. So the issue is not bribery but bribing those not in the good books of the USA, if indeed there was a bribe here. We need to keep in mind that companies do fund election campaigns of parties and politicians and that typically the bucks are sent to all takers. These are essentially investments, which is why legislation on campaign finance is so necessary and so regularly ‘back-burnered’ by politicians, the current lot included. Some funders get contracts, some get ports (the NYT would have us believe).

The NYT hints that the Chinese interest was strategic more than commercial. If that be the case, then this government and especially Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is on the same page as Mahinda Rajapaksa with respect to ‘going along’ with China’s interest. One might say that Ranil’s collusion was more timid since Mahinda at least got some bucks out of the deal. No give and take, but just give. That is, IF the UNP directly or indirectly did not benefit from ‘the principle of wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits’.

Why should the NYT be upset over China doing stuff that’s in China’s interest when the USA does the same? According to David Vine of the Politico Magazine, ‘despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant “Little Americas” to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined.’

How many ‘cough up’ pieces have the NYT written over the years, one has to ask. The NYT talks about a ‘debt trap’ as though it’s a Chinese invention. Well, that’s been part of the Bretten Woods doctrine for decades, and the USA has been the key mover and shaker in the ‘debt-for-coughing-up-whatever’ strategy. To the peoples in whose names such coughing-up happens, the identity of the beneficiary is hardly important. Enslavement is not fun and the name of the slave-master is of little consequence.

Now let’s get to the drama. A quick sweep of the chronology would help paint the true picture of this government’s clumsiness, this time dripping into media practice. The Daily News reported in July, 2015 that the CID was investigating a case where the China Harbour Engineering Company had given Rs. 149 million to the former President’s election campaign. Again quoting CID sources, the Daily News said money had been obtained from HTPD Phase 02 013359190/19 account of the company, maintained at Standard Chartered Bank, Colombo. A person by the name of V.H.R.H. Francisco had obtained Rs. 89 million on December 12, 2014 and January 07, 2015 in three cheques.

What does the NYT say? Here goes:

‘At least $7.6 million was dispensed from China Harbor’s account at Standard Chartered Bank to affiliates of Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign, according to a document, seen by The Times, from an active internal government investigation. The document details China Harbor’s bank account number — ownership of which was verified — and intelligence gleaned from questioning of the people to whom the checks were made out.’

What’s this ‘active internal government investigation’? The only investigation anyone knows about is the one referred to in the Daily News story. Probably the same source, we can presume. Probably and not possibly, considering that among the contributors to the NYT article is a journalist who held a high post in the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd (ANCL aka Lake House) which publishes the Daily News.

The journalist was recently appointed as the editor of the Sunday Observer. The journalists strong political loyalties to the current regime and strong antipathy to the previous are well known. That’s not important here. It’s the connection with the newspaper that ran the first story that matters. That’s what makes the NYT a re-hash and a cheap one at that.

The excitement of the Rajpakasa loyalists now and their silence back in 2015 is strange. Are they indirectly saying that they are more effected by a NYT story than a Daily News story? Is it because the word of Lake House is not taken seriously by the voters anyway? Was it that back then, just after political fortunes hit an unexpected low, they were too down-and-out to respond? We don’t know.

What’s strange is that once the NYT’s rehashed story ‘broke’ it was not only the Rajapaksa loyalists who got excited. The Government went to town, ridiculously implying that because the NYT said it, it is serious, notwithstanding the fact that the Daily News had said virtually the same thing three years before!

Then we have Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe calling for a CID investigation based on the NYT story. So essentially, he’s asking the CID to investigate something the CID had already investigated. What happened to that investigation, though? What did the CID conclude? Did it not conclude anything of significance or did it find things that could embarrass certain individuals in the new regime?

If all this was not enough, we have another Act in the drama, that concerning ‘naming’ journalists. The NYT has sought to tutor the Rajapaksas about how to respond to media stories.

The international editor of the NYT Michael Slackman said the politicians’ actions appears intended to silence critics and curb press freedoms and ultimately deprive Sri Lankans of information in the public interest.’ They’ve said that instead of taking issue with the relevant journalists, concerns should be addressed to the editors of the particular media institutions. These sentiments have been echoed by the Foreign Correspondents’ Association (FCA) in Colombo.

First of all, the only response that can directly be linked to the political group(s) that the Rajapaksas belong to was a media conference where two members of parliament (Kanchana Wijesekera and Dullas Alahapperuma) mentioned journalists who had contributed to the NYT story by name and called Minister Mangala Samaraweera to explain their alleged longtime loyalties to him.

That’s a strange request. Loyalty is not at issue here. What’s at issue is the re-hash and the clumsiness of the entire process, starting from July 2015, both by the relevant media personnel and the government. One of those named, anyway, is a stringer for the NYT and in the case of this story only helped put the NYT correspondent in touch with relevant informants. Both Wijesekera and Alahapperuma seem to have got the wrong end of the stick, but to say, as the FCA has, that they ‘vilified the authors of the report without utilizing established channels to redress any grievance’ is downright silly.

Journalists have bylines. They take responsibility for the content they produce. They are morally and professionally bound to be ready for response. Neither Wijesekera nor Alahapperuma threatened anybody. That they were barking up the wrong tree is a different matter; for example, the spouse of one of the journalist, the ups and downs of the person’s professional life has nothing to do with either the journalist or the NYT or the Daily News report. That said, some of the backers of the previous regime have in fact launched a nasty and threatening campaign against the said journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have also overreacted. They state, ‘politicians have every right to dispute the findings of a news report, but publicly singling out Dharisha Bastians and Arthur Wamanan is a worrisome development in a country noted for attacks on journalists and unsolved journalist murders.’ What the said politicians did was to name the journalists named in the NYT article. It’s not that there were dozens of journalists contributing to the article and that only these two were ‘singled out’.

Interestingly, Mangala Samaraweera also joined the howling-in-horror circus, condemning ‘virulent personal attacks by individuals linked to the joint opposition and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in a bid to intimidate journalists who worked on the NYT (New York Times) report, attacking them for doing their job.’ Virulent personal attacks? Really? ‘In a bid to intimidate?’ Oh well!

Let’s talk about virulent personal attacks and bids to intimidate. On the same day that Samaraweera issued this statement, his it was revealed that his Coordinating Secretary Thusitha Haloluwa has launched as scathing attack on a journalist who had exposed financial irregularity in a state institution running into millions of rupees. The fact was exposed by SLVlog and was picked up by News 1st only three days ago. Is Samaraweera not bothered by the virulence and the intimidation?

The FCA is concerned about all journalists and apparently issues statements relevant to foreign correspondents or correspondents working for foreign media institutions. What does the CPJ have to say about Haloluwa, though?

Samaraweera would also remember how in February 2016, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe launched a virulent and intimidating attack on Daily Mirror (naming its editor) and Derana.

Here’s an excerpt: “Everyone from the Daily Mirror tagged along with Rajapaksa, and one of its writers Kesara Abeywardena had written an article saying I should resign from the party leadership. I am asking them to get in line with the new line of thinking, and I have given them sufficient time for it. If they cannot get in line, without writing lies they have the opportunity to leave. We won’t tolerate this.”

So Wickremesinghe thinks it’s up to him to fire journalists who don’t toe his line. That’s not the first time Wickremesinghe has launched virulent and intimidating attacks on the media. The FCA can remain silent. How about the CPJ? How about Samaraweera himself?

The point is, are we supposed to talk about corruption, debt traps, coughing-up, media ethics, media-integrity, protection of journalists and such across the board, or are were supposed to be selective? The NYT, CPJ and Mangala Samaraweera seem to think ‘selective is best’. Well, that’s what the Rajapaksas were all about, weren’t they?

The entire NYT story, what preceded it and what followed it, far more than ‘exposing’ the previous regime, has shown that this government, its loyalists and the journalists it uses, are morally corrupt, professionally inept and are two-tongued. As for the NYT, let’s not even go there for it would be such a waste of time!

*Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.

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