Political loose talk stifles real challenges to Channel 4

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How strange. Is there nothing called order and respect in this government of many hues and even more wagging tongues?

Shortly after the Channel 4 documentary on the Eastern Sunday massacre caught the government completely unawares, and its parliamentary forces started shooting wildly like in the days of the American Wild West, President Wickremesinghe advocated a “constrained response to the allegations”. He said that “only those implicated in the allegations should respond” as mentioned last Sunday.

Whether the president’s advice, if not a vaguely disguised order to stay away, was itself in response to the irresponsible and inaccurate comments in and out of parliament by loosed-tongued government parliamentarians and their scattered acolytes lashing out at Channel 4, was to save the government’s face from further embarrassment or not, one can only speculate.

But what is clear is that President Wickremesinghe’s considered stance came shortly after Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe called a media conference to take his own slingshots at Channel 4.

Minister Rajapakshe claimed that Channel 4 was influenced by the diaspora—presumably the Tamil community in it, unless he saw other ghosts hovering around—came after his parliamentary colleagues had emptied their scatter guns into parliament’s air already polluted with enough garbage to challenge the illegal waste dumps at Muthurajawela.

Still for all, claimed Rajapakshe with certain certainty, the government was ready to conduct an international investigation. So much for his assertive prognostication.

But even after President Wickremesinghe’s call for a “constrained response” and that only those implicated by Channel 4 should reply, that gratuitously loquacious Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella ignored the president’s admonitions and told a news conference in Kandy that the British Government-owned TV channel will publish “any lie as truth for money” as though his charge of corruption was the unblemished truth.

When it comes to money, one assumes that this is a subject he would be quite acquainted with, what with all the allegations of corruption, sub-standard medicines, waste of public funds and other shenanigans flying around thick and fast in and outside parliament.

Those who followed the “no confidence” motion against Rambukwella in parliament the other day might have heard the accusations made against the Health Ministry and some of its officials and others in affiliated institutions, of corruption and violation or bypassing of established regulations and sub-standard medicines imported into this country as “emergency” requirements and the exorbitant prices the public has had to pay for them.

That is not to speak of the loss of life or life-long injuries that patients have or may have to suffer.

There were also investigative reports in this newspaper over Rambukwella’s journey to Tamil Nadu to inspect the factory of a drug manufacturer not registered in Colombo and about huge hotel bills.

One would have thought that Minister Rambukwella’s media conference in Kandy was to gloat over how he successfully outsmarted the movers of the no-faith motion and the parliament vote stamped its faith in him.

But it seemed that it was more about Channel 4 than his unforgettable—and perhaps his unforgivable—contribution to the health of the nation. And blasting Channel 4 is not his remit nor is it of Justice Minister Rajapakshe who should be concerned about justice being done.

Yet when both stray from their areas of official concern, one begins to wonder what is behind this seemingly deliberate diversionary tactic. Is it to take the public mind away from issues they have failed to deal with in their time?

What happened, for instance, to Justice Minister Rajapakshe’s dramatic disclosure in parliament about a person who accepted a bribe of US$ 250 million for a deal concerning the compensation claims after the “Express Pearl” ship disaster?

In his next disclosure to parliament, he came up with the name of the person and his London bank account details. So, what happened? In fact, what happened to the committee report on State Minister Lohan Ratwatte?

Surely, the public would like to know, especially why the Justice Ministry did not push vigorously enough for the Attorney General to file legal claims against the shipping company until almost the eleventh hour, as multiple media anxiously inquired.

This seeming bravura performance on stage and screen by ministers, MPs and others might win some applause at home but they sure do not have votes in the councils of the world. What is more, these same castigations have been heard time and time again but what impact have they had internationally?

The call for international probes into the Easter Sunday massacre has not died at home or abroad. Actually, the Channel 4 documentary—whatever one thinks of it—has only aggravated that call. If there are doubts about its assertions and conclusions, the way to test their veracity is to set up an international public inquiry rather than domestic investigations as people have lost faith in those probes and their outcomes.

It is the plausibility of those inquiring bodies and the appointment of independent, impartial and reliable persons to sit in them that will erase the trust deficit, given past experience.

One accusation made is that Channel 4 gets active before a UNHRC or UN session to focus critical attention on Sri Lanka.

Any media professional—be it from the electronic or print media—worth his/her salt knows to choose the occasion and the time to make his or her story public so that it has the widest impact, just as a good General would try to pick the terrain, time and opportunity to do battle without charging like the Light Brigade.

Surely it would be naïve to write or publish an article on Sinhala and Tamil New Year traditions in mid-November—unless mental disorder is beginning to tell.

While Sri Lankan critics consider Channel 4 exposés timed to coincide with UNHRC or UN sessions some grave moral crime, they seem to forget that our governments have been doing the same thing for years.

Just before UNHRC meetings or an occasion on which Sri Lanka is likely to be on centre stage, relevant ministers and their officials hold briefings to present its side of the story in the hope that it will minimise international criticism.

Days before Channel 4 surfaced with its controversial documentary, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, with Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe in tow, held a briefing session for Colombo-based diplomats on the new Anti-Terrorism Bill that is intended to replace the old PTA which has been a subject of mounting criticism at the UNHRC sessions and its resolutions for years.

This particular diplomatic briefing was to convince the international community that the despised and oppressive old PTA will be replaced by a new law drafted after public consultation and respecting Sri Lanka’s international obligations.

Those concerned about truth forget that Foreign Minister Ali Sabry avoided telling the truth. The public consultations came long after the original bill was battered locally and internationally for empowering authorities to systematically violate fundamental human rights and breach international laws and norms. Besides it was condemned for its crude drafting and lack of clear definitions.

Under attack from multiple sources an embarrassed Minister Rajapakshe held back the draft and only then were discussions with civil society organisations and professionals held, not before as Ali Sabry conveniently purports as though the diplomats were ignorant of it.

The point is that this is not the first time our foreign ministers have timed briefing diplomats ahead of the UNHRC session where Sri Lanka is under scrutiny.

If the government can do so, why is it considered an act of gross turpitude for the media to do so?

(Neville de Silva is a veteran
Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later,
he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)



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