Colombo Telegraph

Young Global Leaders Taste Floppy Journalism

By Darshanie Saman Kumari

Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya, Regional Adviser, Asia for International Media Support, is addressing a gathering of informal ambassadors to Sri Lanka. They are the Young Global Leaders (YGLs) of the World Economic Forum (WEF) from the South Asian region, here for the South Asia Bridge Initiative, the first ever WEF event to be hosted by Sri Lanka. Kalansooriya has been given the opportunity to round off a series of presentations by a dynamic panel including Dr. Saman Kelagama, Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, Mr. Rajendra Theagarajah, Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, Linda Speldewinde, and Anushka Wijesinha.

The South Asian YGLs make an uninitiated but deeply affirming audience. They listen to each speaker with flattering attention, laugh in all the right places and applaud witticisms with childlike enthusiasm, free from too much background information, always an impediment to the enjoyment of a speech. Of all the speakers there, Ranga Kalansooriya alone abuses the trust of this receptive audience, by dishing out disinformation under the broad topic ‘The media landscape of Sri Lanka’.

“Sri Lanka has a very passive media in that context. We have never toppled any government through media. [Whispering in the audience]. India did. Rajiv Gandhi was toppled by a media campaign through the Bofos scandal. But we never did. But we toppled a government through social media last year.” He informs his captive audience gathered at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce in the morning of 18 February 2016.

“Both Myanmar and Sri Lanka are Buddhist majority. But what happened, who made this change? “, Kalansooriya asks exuding clouds of faulty logic which settles on the gathering like a fog. He explains that in Myanmar, Buddhist clergy, of a radical hue – the 969 movement – went around the country asking people not to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi, an agent, according to them of Islamization, separatism and internationalization. But still, says Ranga, the Buddhist majority Myanmar did not listen to the voice of the clergy. Then he goes on to say that in Sri Lanka the same story played out. “In Sri Lanka the same story. Nationalistic movements and some clergy went around the country saying not to vote [for Maithripala Sirisena] or to vote for the existing President, otherwise [they warned about] the conspirators, the international community, the war heroes, all the series, rhetoric, all the stereotypes. But what happened? The strong man lost”

A little later Ranga Kalansoooriya announces to his audience, “I am the person who established the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. But I have to say I am ashamed of the quality of journalism in Sri Lanka as well as elsewhere.” He remains unaware of any irony, that he himself is enacting an almost a textbook example of the low quality of journalism he is talking about.

According to Dr. Kalansooriya, once upon a time, there was a strong man in a Buddhist majority country, strongly backed by nationalistic movements and clergy, who painted a prospect of national apocalypse in the event of the strong man losing. And yet the strong man lost in the Buddhist majority country. How did he lose? To this crux question Kalansooriya has a preferred answer. His tale has been weaved to fit that answer; “The Nationalistic movements all over behind Rajapaksa. But still he lost. Who made this change? Both in Mynmar and in SL what we found was the people, the silent majority, especially the users of social media, they made the change. We saw a total paradigm shift of perception through the use of social media.”

What he is not telling his audience, probably because the quality of his journalism has been diminished by capacity issues and agenda issues, is that the strong man didn’t lose in the Buddhist majority country. The schizophrenic behaviour of the Sri Lankan electorate in the 8 January presidential election is too well documented for anyone except a floppy journalist to wish to hide it. It was as if the island contained two different countries; a Buddhist or rather a Sinhalese majority country and a non Sinhalese majority country.

In the Sinhalese majority country, Kalansooriya’s ‘strong man’ aka Rajapaksa won by a moderate margin. In the non Sinhalese majority country he lost by a huge margin. In sum, the strong man lost in the entire country by a small margin. Writing to The Hindu in the aftermath of the 8 January election Erik Solheim, the Norwegian special peace envoy to Sri Lanka, hardly agenda-less, but with enough capacity to be counted as an authoritative source on Sri Lanka, described the schizophrenic phenomenon; “The election victory was possible due to massive support from all Sri Lankan minorities. Mr. Rajapaksa won 90 out of 160 electoral districts and came out on top in nearly all Sinhala-dominated provinces. Mr. Rajapaksa roughly won the Sinhalese vote by 55 per cent. This was compensated for by Mr. Sirisena winning around 80 per cent of the Tamil vote and an even bigger share of Muslim votes. For this was payback time.”

For the record, Solheim’s capacity is not optimal. He erroneously calls polling divisions, ‘electoral districts’. Polling divisions are the basic electoral units in Sri Lanka and therefore the most sensitive and natural indicators of the voting pattern, which is maybe why Solheim chose their numbers to illustrate his point. Rajapaksa won in 90 polling divisions while Sirisena won in only 70. An Electoral district is larger and more artificial, giving a less sensitive but more corporate reading. Sirisena won in 12 electoral districts while Rajapaksa came on top only in 10.

Notwithstanding his terminology glitch, the most authoritative local sources echoed Solheim’s analysis of the schizophrenic electorate. Dayan Jayatilleka in Colombo Telegraph, 17 January 2015; “So Mahinda Rajapaksa indubitably won the majority of the majority of the island’s citizens: 55% of 70%. He lost. The winner failed to win a majority of the majority. He won. To a great many, this structural asymmetry makes the mandate look and feel like a doughnut.”

M.A Sumanthiran, the allegedly moderate face of the TNA in Sunday Leader, 11 January 2015; “This election has shown that Maithripala Sirisena’s victory was assured by those people who are numerically in the minority and therefore the weight of their votes equal to the weight of the vote from the majority community.”

Senior economist, Prof. Sumanasiri Liyanage in Colombo Telegraph, 14 January 2015; “When the ex-Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka who conducted the war on the ground contested Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010 Presidential Election, Tamils were hesitant to vote for him although Tamil National Alliance wanted them to do so. Voter turnout was just 25 per cent in Jaffna in 2010. So voters in the Sinhala South who gathered around Rajapaksa voted for him outweighing the protest votes of the Tamils. Waiting hurts, but Tamils in Sri Lanka patiently waited… Sirisena won the election held on January 8, 2014 by a majority of 449,072 votes. A back of the envelope calculation shows that Maithripala Sirisena was given a majority of 654,521 by the peoples of Northern and Eastern provinces that are predominantly Tamil and Muslim areas. This huge majority was in fact reduced substantially to 450,000 because of the majority given to Mahinda Rajapaksa by the Sinhala voters in the south. The irony of this is that Mahinda Rajapaksa actually got the majority of Sinhala votes in the south notwithstanding the fact that Sinhala voters were also disappointed of the regime for different reasons.”

There was a revolution of sorts in Sri Lanka on 8 January 2015. It was not silent. All ears that were attuned to election results that night rang to the sound of the resounding slaps given to the incumbent president by the non Sinhalese majority North and East. Not only did all five Northern and Eastern electoral districts defeat him but did so with overwhelming and ignominious majorities.

In the North, Jaffna gave Rajapaksa a miserable 21.85% while giving Sirisena a rich 74.42%. Vanni gave him a measly 19.07% while according Sirisena an affirming 78.47%. In the East, Batticaloa embarrassed Rajapaksa with 16.22% while lavishing 81.62% on Sirisena. Trincomalee was marginally more generous and spared 26.67% for Rajapaksa but definitely reserved the lions share, 71.84% for Sirisena. Even Digamadulla with its relatively higher Sinhala population only gave the old King a step motherly 33.82% while dishing out a wholesome 65.22% to Sirisena. No one who knows anything about the IT infrastructure distribution in Sri Lanka thinks these slaps were fueled by social media and smart phones.

Of the 17 electoral districts situated outside the North and the East, Rajapaksa triumphed in 10 while Sirisena did only in seven. But none of these ten districts that made Rajapaksa a victor gave him majorities to match what the North and East gave Sirisena. This was the real revolution in Sri Lanka which defies any analogy with Myanmar and denies social media the crucial, regime toppling role that analysts with less than optimal capacity, such as Kalansooriya would force on it.

And so Ranga Kalansooriya leaps from absurdity to absurdity, exploiting not very gallantly, what he perceives as the gullibility of his captive audience. According to him, the government is showing unprecedented promptness in bringing Right to Information (RTI) legislation by the end of February 2016. As far as he knows there is no government in this world “who brought these laws in their first term. Normally governments bring RTI laws at the end of the second term.” At this point Puruesh Chaudhary, an ex Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum from Pakistan almost has a fit laughing out loud. She finally controls herself by raising up her hands and giving the speaker an affirming burst of applause. Encouraged, Ranga ascends to a higher register of disingenuousness. He says “But this government had the courage, the bravery to bring it during the first year of their first term.”

Listening with mounting disbelief, I wonder briefly about Ranga Kalansooriya’s PhD. Is it possible that he really believes that this is the first year of the first term of the Wickremesinnghe-Sirisena government? Is it possible that he does not know that the first term of the new government started on 9 January 2015 when Sirisena and Wickremesinghe were sworn in, one after the other, as the President and PM respectively, and that introducing the RTI Bill to Parliament was scheduled, according to election promise, for 20 February 2015? Could it be that Kalansooriya has forgotten that in all the charts representing the 100 day Programme of the new regime, introduction of the RTI Bill is marked in red as a promise not kept?

I remember subediting a news story for 15 February 2015 for The Nation and giving it the headline, ‘New Government’s Newest Milestone’. The writer of that news story had said under the subheading ‘RTI Draft Bill’
“According to the government, proposed draft bill which is to be presented to the cabinet was released last week to certain parties, mainly party leaders and civil society groups for review. The draft is to then be presented in parliament on February 20 after necessary amendments according to the feedback received.”
It did not happen. Almost one year later, on 18 February 2016, even as Ranga Kalansooriya was standing before his credulous audience simpering about the new government’s extraordinary promptness in bringing RTI, snide comments were being made in Parliament about the mysterious non appearance of the Bill and editorials were being written querying its whereabouts. ‘Get moving on the RTI Act’ exhorted the editorial of The Island on 28 February 2016.

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