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Politics of gold smuggling

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The Opposition Leader made a pertinent point this week in Parliament. How come, he asked, a Frenchman was fined Rs 70 million by Customs for attempting to smuggle 4.6 kilos of gold while an MP was fined a paltry Rs. 7.5 million for smuggling 3.5 kilos of gold.

The MP concerned merrily goes about his ‘business’ as if nothing has happened. Equally shocking is the fact that neither the CID nor Customs is launching a full-scale investigation into what is obviously a longstanding gold smuggling ring with Colombo International Airport considered a soft entry point – and a very likely transit point, for onward transmission of the gold to India and the region.

On and off, the Sri Lanka Navy and the Indian Coast Guard detect gold smuggling operations in the seas around the IMBL (International Maritime Boundary Line) that divides the two countries, but these isolated incidents that hit the news are just the tip of an iceberg. The nexus between the gold smuggling and the drug trade is patently clear, yet the Sri Lankan authorities seem to either adopt the ‘what we don’t see; doesn’t happen’ approach, or they are well and truly compromised.

The IMBL is the hub for the gold (melted into ‘biscuits’) to trade for cannabis and even banned pills and turmeric etc. It is not only illegal fishing that is taking place in these waters. It is the place for contraband. Some of it is buried along with fishing nets in mid-sea and satellite locations are exchanged between the smugglers on both sides. The nets are then switched.

In the Northern Province, drug abuse is very high and many are the actors in this ring of organised crime. Northern politicians have only a telescopic view of their role limiting it to ‘devolution’ issues without focusing on the criminal activity taking place in their homeland.

Since the MP was caught red-handed, there have been calls by influential members of his own community to ban political parties carrying religious or communal identification. This has long been discussed and an across-the-board ban needs serious consideration. Many of these parties and their leaders have only sown the seeds of toxic politics spewing communal disharmony on the pretext of defending their faithful while aggrandizing themselves, big-time, in the process.

Mainstream political parties treat these parties and their leaders like ‘sacred cows’ and fall at their feet for their vote bank. It was time they did their communities a favour and banned them from using and misusing their ethno-religious identity.

Those calling for a separation of powers between the State and Religion may start with such a ban.

Broadcast bill: Yet another defective product from Govt.’s law factory

 Draft laws are rolling out of the Justice Ministry like a factory line working overtime, but unfortunately, factory defects are aplenty in the process. The proposed Broadcast Regulatory Commission Bill is the latest to be in the firing line and not for nothing.

It will establish a body to regulate the broadcast media that will be firmly under the thumb of the Government with no established criteria or independent nomination process for its board.

The appointed members may be dismissed at any time by the President on grounds such as ‘misbehaviour’ or ‘unable to discharge the functions of the Commission’ after ‘informing’ the Constitutional Council. Such wide powers are liable to be misused. The proposals emanating from a Cabinet sub-committee are substantially incoherent, replete with typographical and grammatical errors and contrary to the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court which dismissed a previous Broadcast Authority Bill in 1997.

Decades after that widely hailed decision, it seems that this Government has not learned its lesson. The proposed regulatory Commission can move against broadcasters ostensibly when they violate their licences but the grounds are unclear. For example, a ‘committee on complaints’ will investigate allegations of violations on, inter alia, ‘any threat’ to national security or the national economy. What is meant by ‘any threat’?

There seem to be differing views within the broadcast media (which includes television) ranging from wanting no regulation at all to being agreeable to self-regulation, to accepting co-regulation – i.e. a mix of statutory regulations based on self-regulation principles. Today’s ‘media’ is driven by social media, with broadcast media trying to play catch up as the traditional print loses ground due to varying factors. The print is already shackled with old laws, while Governments try to bring the broadcast media to heel. In such an exercise, it will only give the unpoliceable (anti) social media a further free run.

The print media was the first to go for self-regulation with the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL). It was a fair exchange for the repeal of the archaic criminal defamation laws at a time when print was still the most influential media and a former President had set her eyes on trying to tame the independent media.

In what direction should media law reform proceed? The umbrella body of the print media, the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), has provided the Government with an outline of a comprehensive Sri Lanka Media Authority (SLMA) draft to two Media Ministers in the last three years, and a third was handed over a copy this week.

Instead of using this industry document, drafted with international expertise on modern best practices in the democratic world as a baseline, the Government goes and introduces laws from the Justice Ministry – all coming in for heavy criticism apart from bad drafting.

Separately, the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka, the SLPI, also the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and other stakeholders, have given the Government a draft Contempt of Court law, but again the Justice Ministry rolls out its own version.

Bill after Bill gets negative remarks from the Supreme Court. Why the Government cannot put the brakes on this indecent hurry to introduce bad laws, when stakeholders have also gone the distance in studying these subjects and are willing to come to a win-win position, is beyond comprehension.

 

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