Kath Noble

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘bright ideas’

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on June 26, 2013

Why the President should not try to control the media

media ethicsMahinda Rajapaksa has had another bright idea. A few weeks ago, he got one of his hangers-on in the ‘public service’ to float a draft code of ethics for journalists, which he no doubt expected to prove useful in strengthening formal mechanisms of control of the Fourth Estate. Unfortunately for him, the document was so flawed that even his hangers-on in the media could find nothing positive to say about it. Indeed, the condemnation that it elicited was virtually universal, forcing the President to step in and promise that such efforts would be left to journalists themselves.

That initiative forestalled, Mahinda Rajapaksa is now busying himself with an alternative – the dissemination of ideas for self-censorship.

At last week’s regular meeting with newspaper editors, he made a particularly curious suggestion. He requested them not to cover the anti-Muslim activities of extremist organisations, saying, ‘If they don’t get publicity, they will just fade away.’

One cannot help but wonder if he is aware of the context in which such arguments are usually made.

I immediately thought of what is often said in the West in the aftermath of a terrorist attack – don’t give them what they want. Terrorism requires the participation of the media if it is to be effective. As everybody knows, in an average year, as many Americans die in school shootings – thanks to their quite baffling determination to maintain easy access to weapons – as at the hands of Al Qaeda. Every year, far more are shot by adults. Yet fear of terrorism in America is much greater. It is completely illogical.

But Al Qaeda is happy, and it tries to facilitate this outcome by making its attacks ‘spectacular’, such as by flying planes into the World Trade Center.

The American government is also quite keen for people to overestimate the importance of Al Qaeda, so that they accept its ‘War on Terror’. How else can they persuade a nation so committed to freedom that it is necessary for the security apparatus to read their emails and listen to their telephone calls – as the recent disclosures by Edward Snowden have reminded them – not to mention the vast array of morally outrageous tactics they employ with such tremendous energy overseas? How else can they get the American public to agree to go to fight in countries that they have never heard of?

Nobody argues that people shouldn’t be told about Al Qaeda. The point is that it should be done in such a way as to give them an accurate picture of the threat.

One suspects that this choice of language doesn’t imply that Mahinda Rajapaksa considers the Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya to be terrorist organisations.

If he did, there would be a much simpler way of limiting coverage of their activities.

Consider the recent march from Kataragama to Colombo in support of a ban on cattle slaughter. Given the number of Buddhists who very happily eat beef, I wouldn’t bother to mention it if it had been conducted peacefully – let monks convince people to change their diets if they like. But that is clearly not their objective. They are not targeting Buddhists. Their message is for Muslims. They want to put a stop to their involvement in the beef trade.

That is why they set fire to a Muslim shop in Tangalle, as reported by DBS Jeyaraj. And that is why their supporters beat up a Muslim who was taking photographs of them.

The purpose is to demonstrate to Muslims that they are at the mercy of Buddhists in this country.

To encourage us not to talk about these things, the Government has an extremely effective tool at its disposal. It is called the Police. Instead of the Police standing back and letting these things happen – as we know by now, when it provides security for such events, it considers only the security of the participants, not that of the people the participants attack – it could intervene. We have seen enough videos of the Police calmly looking on while members of extremist organisations run amok. If it simply did its job, we wouldn’t feel such a compulsion to discuss these problems.

This is of course the key difference with America. In America, people can be very sure that the Police is working hard to catch terrorists. At least it doesn’t stand by while bombs are being set off.

Here, the Government took on the LTTE and won, for which most of the country is deeply grateful. The LTTE presented a huge challenge to the State. And it was a terrible burden for the people of Sri Lanka – even those on whose behalf it claimed to be fighting.

If the State doesn’t curb the activities of extremist organisations, it is because it doesn’t want to.

And what happens when extremists are left to their own devices? Do they just fade away, as the President has suggested?

The LTTE didn’t. It had to be stopped.

If the Sri Lankan media had ignored it, it would have continued with its efforts to establish a separate state, and maybe it would have been successful.

Should we ignore the fact that there are still people running around in other countries waving the Tiger flag?

Likewise, it is not by avoiding discussion of the anti-Muslim activities of the Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya that they can be defeated. Unchecked, they will be able to go on poisoning minds throughout the country. Maybe they will even be able to initiate a full scale confrontation, if they work hard enough. At the very least, they will be able to prevent Muslims from living as they wish – they have already succeeded in getting rid of halal certification, which was of absolutely no concern to the vast majority of Buddhists in Sri Lanka until the extremists started their campaign. And they will move on to the next absurdity so long as they are not challenged.

The only respite the country has had in the last few months came in the aftermath of highly critical press coverage, which also contributed to a number of protests by concerned citizens in Colombo.

Rather than easing up on these efforts, they need to be intensified.

This is why the President should not get involved in formulating guidelines for the media. Rather than thinking about what is good for the country, politicians think about what is good for them and their future. Sadly for the people, these are not equivalent. With this and many other interventions in recent months, Mahinda Rajapaksa has made this abundantly clear.

This article was published in The Island on 26th June 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘compromises’

Posted in Ceylon Today by kathnoble on June 19, 2013

On the country’s need for leadership to keep the 13th Amendment intact

hakeem and devanandaProbably even Mahinda Rajapaksa is amazed at how much he can get away with. At the end of the war, he promised that he would fully implement the 13th Amendment. In fact, he promised that its full implementation would be just the beginning – further steps would be taken to ensure that Sri Lanka never had to face such an ordeal again. He may even have believed it.

Yet here he is now, trying to pass constitutional amendments to do away with a number of its very significant clauses.

Discussion of this fascinating turnaround has tended to focus on the international community, in particular India. What will India do if Mahinda Rajapaksa goes back on his word? What will the world think?

Of course this is important. India has proved that it is eminently capable of destabilising Sri Lanka. Its supply of weapons and training – and a safe haven – to Tamil militant groups was vital to their converting numbers into results after Black July. More recently, India’s support of Western diplomatic efforts to raise the issue of war crimes at the United Nations has contributed to – if not by itself resulted in – the loss of other key states of the Non-Aligned Movement, plus the toughening of global public opinion.

In between, India helped the Government to pursue its military campaign against the LTTE to a successful conclusion.

Its current alignment with the West on Sri Lankan issues should be a major cause for concern, given Western enthusiasm for and experience of destabilisation, especially of countries with leaders that it considers troublesome.

One of the inadvertent consequences of the victory over the LTTE is the massive overconfidence of Sinhalese nationalists. They have come to think that Sri Lanka can take on the world. That it is an island of only 20 million people – and 20 million people who are united in body but not yet in spirit – does not register. Bring on a billion Indians and however many from the West! Never mind the suffering such confrontations entail, even when they don’t involve the use of force. Let them try! This is linked to the fallacy that they have already defeated India once. But it was the LTTE and not the Government or the JVP that forced the withdrawal of the IPKF, and the most important factor in that struggle was not its military capacity but the Tamil ethnicity of its members.

Only the form of intervention would be in doubt with the undoing of the 13th Amendment. It is a ‘red line’.

The absolutely obvious – yet apparently incomprehensible to Sinhalese nationalists – result of such provocation of India would be the practical strengthening of the separatist cause in Sri Lanka.

It would also be theoretically strengthened, of course.

Separatists hate the idea of functioning provincial councils in the North and East. That is why the LTTE rejected the 13th Amendment and why the British Tamils Forum has this weekend issued a statement ruling out any deal that is based on it. To justify dividing the country, they need to argue that Tamils cannot live in Sri Lanka. They need to convince people that they will always be dominated and discriminated against by Sinhalese, if not actually murdered by them. And making those claims would be a lot more difficult if the most important decisions affecting the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants of Tamil majority areas were being taken by their elected representatives from the Tamil community itself.

Involving the most popular Tamil political formation in the governance system would also encourage it to move away from such an agenda. They should be given an incentive to work for Sri Lanka.

By contrast, keeping the TNA out of power leaves it with nothing better to do than spearhead another push for Eelam.

Abolishing provincial councils is a totally loopy idea. And of course the campaign to get rid of the 13th Amendment is being led by the usual crowd of lunatics. (I was momentarily delighted a couple of weeks ago when the Ravana Balaya started protesting about somebody’s plan to build a statue of Sita, thinking that their getting involved in such absolutely pointless issues of no possible interest to anybody was a sign that we could finally forget about them, but no such luck!)

The problem is that such efforts are used by the Government to give the impression that its own stupidities constitute a reasonable compromise.

Removing as many powers as possible from provincial councils – as the Government is trying to do through its proposed constitutional amendments – is hardly better than getting rid of them altogether. Indeed, what actually needs to be done is to work out how to give them more responsibilities, looking at reviews that have been undertaken of their functioning in the rest of the country. There are numerous very useful studies, both official and those carried out by independent academics and civil society organisations. The report by the Institute of Constitutional Studies, published in 2010, would be a good start.

The Government could still do it.

One of the saddest aspects of the current hullabaloo over provincial councils – and the point that is most worth debating now – is that it is in no way reflective of public opinion in Sri Lanka. A 2011 survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives found that almost 40% of the Sinhalese community had no opinion whatsoever about provincial councils. Another more than 30% was in favour of them, with the existing level of devolution, while additional devolution of powers was preferred by another 15%. In other words, very few people were dead set against the 13th Amendment.

(More than 40% of Tamils wanted additional devolution, while around 20% preferred the existing level.)

Of course a lot of the Sinhalese community can be persuaded that the 13th Amendment is actually tantamount to hacking off their own feet, and that process is now well under way.

What the research tells us is that they need leadership.

What they are getting is Wimal Weerawansa, Champika Ranawaka and the Vens Galagodatthe Gnanasara,  Akmeemana Dayaratne and Co.

Although the sheer number of different groups calling for the abolition of provincial councils makes it seem as though it is a mainstream effort, this is simply a reflection of their astute tactics. Rather than working under a single banner – which they could just about manage to hold up between them – they have each formed their own organisation to work for more or less the same ends.

It is about time more sensible politicians launched a counterattack.

The stand of the SLMC and EPDP is a relief, since it is more or less the first indication that members of the administration have minds of their own, plus something resembling a backbone. The Cabinet Memorandum by Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Tissa Witharana and DEW Gunasekera is also welcome. But it is not enough for them to refuse to vote for the Government’s constitutional amendments – Mahinda Rajapaksa is an expert when it comes to cobbling together coalitions, and he may still find a way to get what he wants. The only real hope of keeping the 13th Amendment intact is to go out and actively convince people that it is essential for the future of the country.

This article was published in Ceylon Today on 20th June 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Where is the code of ethics for MPs?

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on June 12, 2013

On the Government’s unethical treatment of the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda

sandhya ekneligodaIt would be funny if it weren’t so disgusting. In the week that the Government distributed a code of ethics for journalists, one of its MPs made possibly the most unethical statement of the year, from the safety and comfort of Parliament.

I am of course talking about Arundika Fernando and his claim to have seen missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda in France.

I don’t know about you, but if I had been introduced to the man who has become the symbol of the Sri Lankan media’s descent into hell – thanks to the extraordinarily courageous campaigning of his wife Sandhya – I would remember where it happened. I would make a note of it, maybe even take a photo. I would certainly ask the person who introduced us how on earth Ekneligoda had found his way out of the country undetected, what he was doing now, and why it was that he felt so amazingly confident in his disguise as to join Sunanda Deshapriya (wearing an oh-so-discreet turban, as Fernando has since added by way of supposedly reassuring detail!) in trying to disrupt a pro-Government rally outside the United Nations. I would also tell somebody to investigate further, because such a huge deception should not be allowed to pass.

And I am not even a Government supporter.

Fernando, he would have us believe, didn’t bother with any of that. He just forgot about it, then several months later when MPs got together to talk about the amount they should charge newspapers by way of registration fees, he dropped it into the debate.

This after the Government’s name has been dragged through the mud at the international level, not only because of the disappearance of Ekneligoda but also for the admission in a Sri Lankan court by former Attorney General and now Chief Justice Mohan Peiris that his statement to the Human Rights Council that Ekneligoda is alive and well rather than murdered by the State or forces associated with it was based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

Frankly, if Fernando is telling the truth, he should be prosecuted for treason.

And if he is lying, he should be prosecuted for torture. Because that is what it would be, telling a woman that she should continue to hope for the return of her husband without good reason. (Good reason doesn’t include trying to browbeat Sandhya Ekneligoda into giving up her protests against the Government.)

Either way, it is definitely irresponsible.

Indeed, this is exactly the kind of irresponsibility that the Government has suddenly decided has to be dealt with in journalists.

Apparently, journalists report things that simply aren’t true and poor old politicians don’t have any means of redress – some idiot has made it illegal to kill them, and I think beating them up and burning their presses and studios is probably outlawed as well. (Maybe that’s something Mahinda Rajapaksa could look into while he still has his two thirds majority in Parliament?)

To be honest, I didn’t realise that the Government had such a frightful burden to bear. I was sure that it had plenty of even perfectly lawful ways of setting the record straight, not least its own massive media empire.

In any case, there is already a code of ethics for journalists, adopted by the Press Complaints Commission with the approval of all of the major media organisations.

What is different about the one that was circulated last week?

The original document prepared by journalists includes all of the necessary elements, like the need for accuracy in reporting and for verification of stories prior to publication. It calls for the issue of corrections and apologies where appropriate, and specifies the conditions under which people must be offered the right to reply. It urges restraint in covering issues of a particularly shocking nature, such as violence and obscenity, requires care to be exercised to avoid promoting communal or religious discord, and lists details that should not be included in a story, such as the identity of the victims of sex crimes and repetition of methods of suicide. It also states that journalists should not use financial information that they become aware of before it is published.

One of the most useful parts explains what constitutes the public interest, in the pursuit of which a certain degree of invasion of privacy or the use of methods such as secret recordings may be acceptable. It also encourages investigative journalism in the public interest.

Whether journalists stick to these guidelines is not the point. That is a matter of compliance, not the code of ethics itself.

As The Island has pointed out editorially, if the Government really feels the need to act, it had better start by ensuring the good behaviour of its own publications and broadcasters, and only then consider developing rules for others.

However, back to the new draft.

What the Government has done is add to the existing very sensible document a set of totally ridiculous criteria that it would like to use to rule out altogether the publication or broadcast of a whole lot of things. Included here are stories that ‘offend against the expectations of the public’, whatever those may be, and stories that ‘may promote anti-national attitudes’ or ‘contain criticism affecting foreign relations’. Since the term ‘anti-national attitudes’ is nowhere defined, experience suggests that this would be interpreted by the Government to mean any and all criticism of its actions. And whatever the definition, the stories need not even promote ‘anti-national attitudes’ – this only has to be a possible outcome. Vaguer criteria are almost impossible to imagine. As for the clause expressing concern about foreign relations, there can be no doubt whatsoever about the Government’s intentions, since even the reproduction of transcripts of its own announcements at press briefings would damage its standing in the world.

In addition to these extraordinary criteria, the new draft also outlaws stories that ‘contain materials against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature’. Again, what on earth does this mean?

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this whole exercise is that the Government is quite happy to look keen to crush the media (and pretty thick, incidentally!).

It is apparently completely unconcerned at the prospect of looking keen to trample on Sandhya Ekneligoda.

Arundika Fernando made this even clearer when he addressed the media, accusing her of behaving in an unpatriotic manner in calling on the Government to bring her husband home, as if that were not the obvious course of action in the circumstances. Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared just days before the last presidential election, in preparation for which he had been working for the common candidate of the Opposition, Sarath Fonseka.

Whatever his politics, it is the Government’s job to explain what happened to him, not by making wild assertions but with the use of actual proof.

This article was published by The Island on 12th June 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A few thoughts for the Opposition

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on June 5, 2013

Why the UNP needs to do better in its analysis of what’s wrong with the economy

share of exportsThis is hardly news, but the Opposition continued to be uninspiring last week. If a country is going to change its constitution, it really ought to be worth the bother. But the most encouraging thing about the draft published by the UNP on Wednesday is its support for provincial level devolution within a unitary state, which is exactly what is already in place thanks to the 13th Amendment to the existing constitution.

It is also one of the few commitments to which voters would trust it to stick in the unlikely event of Ranil Wickremasinghe being elected.

The Government should grasp this opportunity to confirm its own position and forge a consensus of what should be the vast majority of the country, rather than using it as an excuse to change direction and side with a few extremists in the form of the JHU and the NFF. There is a lot of space in the centre of the political spectrum in Sri Lanka, and Mahinda Rajapaksa should see the importance for the long term future of the SLFP of occupying it.

Sadly, by comparison with its attempts to challenge the Government on the economy, this rather underwhelming move by the UNP is absolutely brilliant.

The strike against the electricity tariff hike was pathetic. It was either too little too late or too much too soon. Even though this was an issue that had caused a major stir in the country, particularly with the urban middle class who should be the least attached to the Government, participation was extremely limited. And of course this is not so surprising since the action was really very badly timed, coming well after the President had stepped in to give the impression that he was rolling back some of the increase. It made the Opposition look ineffective – or I guess I should say even more ineffective – when it should have been gaining strength from its successful protest the previous week.

Having made a mess of that, it is now back to the business of trying to make less important problems look both vital and urgent. Thus Harsha de Silva has been deployed to ‘expose’ the possibility of an impending debt crisis.

To do this, he has been employing the recently published report of the IMF on its annual consultations with the Government. He says that the IMF has ‘revealed’ figures that the Government wanted to hide, in the form of the consolidated budget deficit. This stands at 8.6% of GDP, compared to a budget deficit of 6.4%. The claim is that the Government is trying to hoodwink the public into believing that the economy is in better shape than is the reality.

This being something people tend to be quite willing to accept, no doubt he thinks that he’s onto a winner.

The trouble is that the more often you predict disaster and it doesn’t happen, the less you look as though you know what you’re talking about.

The fact is that there are several different versions of the budget deficit, and they are used for different purposes. Harsha de Silva would know this, being an economist. And Ranil Wickremasinghe would know it, because the UNP too talked of the budget deficit and not the consolidated budget deficit in the brief period when he was Prime Minister. In any case, even if we all agreed that the consolidated budget deficit is ‘best’, the data to calculate it from the budget deficit is in the public domain.

This doesn’t mean that the Government isn’t trying to deceive people. It means that the Opposition has no idea whether the Government is trying to deceive people.

It means that the Opposition has no idea whether the country is overburdened by debt.

And that’s a pity, since a debt crisis wouldn’t be much fun.

Interestingly, the IMF seems to think that the Government is moving in the right direction, and that the prospect of such an unfortunate eventuality is diminishing. The major problem, according to the IMF, and as I have said on numerous occasions, is the very low level of tax revenue in Sri Lanka. The Government having decided that the IMF is correct to insist on cuts in the budget deficit, shortfalls in tax revenue mean that expenditure has to be curtailed, which even the IMF now accepts is detrimental to economic growth.

The UNP has been making some noise about taxation in recent weeks, which is long overdue. But if it is to make a serious contribution, it must say how it would raise more tax.

Who should pay?

Taxation obviously isn’t the only issue, since a significant amount of the debt that administrations in Sri Lanka have incurred over the years is due in foreign currency, which means that even more foreign currency has to be earned by the country to make the repayments of the capital plus interest. As demonstrated as recently as the beginning of last year, when reserves of foreign currency fell to the equivalent of 3.2 months of imports – three months being the usual point at which panic sets in – this is not so easy. Towards the end of the war, they reached 1.2 months of imports and the Government had to agree to an emergency loan from the IMF, with all its associated conditions.

The IMF being particularly obsessed with the ‘losses’ of the CEB and the CPC, this is clearly a situation that the Government would like to avoid if at all possible.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Sri Lanka’s increasing dependence on workers’ remittances, which now bring in $6.0 billion, compared to $4.0 billion from exports of textiles and garments, $1.4 billion from exports of tea and $1.0 billion in tourism receipts. In the context of a downturn in the country’s key export markets in the US and EU, it is easy to understand why the Government is happy to see remittances take on such an important role in the economy. Not only do they flow primarily from other parts of the globe, but so long as those countries remain willing to accept migrants, they also tend to be more stable than export earnings, since they are generally sent by individuals to their families.

However, as I said, this is clearly not a happy situation, since most people don’t want to have to travel thousands of miles to earn a decent living. I asked what the Government’s plan was for generating proper jobs at home.

Connected to that should be the question of what it is doing to boost exports.

Both the share of exports in GDP and Sri Lanka’s share of world exports are falling. If that were only the result of lower demand in the US and EU, it would be reasonable to do what the Government appears to be doing and borrow abroad to cover the shortfall. The debt could be repaid when exports recovered.

However, one of the infinitely more important facts highlighted by the IMF report is that these figures have been falling since 2000. In other words, it is not a temporary glitch.

A very useful recent article by Verite Research on the electricity tariff issue has shown exactly what can happen when the Government acts on what it hopes the future will bring and it is wrong. They say that the extraordinary ‘losses’ of the CEB in 2012, which surely contributed to the recent hike, were to a large extent the result of a gamble. They show how over the last decade the CEB has been relying much more heavily on hydro power, which is cheapest, assuming that low rainfall in one year will be compensated in the next, and how this strategy was employed to an even greater – by implication reckless – extent in 2010 and 2011, because the authorities thought that they had the Norochcholai coal power station as a back-up. What actually happened was that Norochcholai broke down, as it does regularly, and because reservoirs were already so close to empty, the CEB had to resort to expensive oil generation by the private sector.

This is also why the country was subject to major blackouts, which would have cost the economy a lot more than the CEB had to spend.

In a sense, this is not much different to the oil hedging fiasco that got the CPC into trouble in 2008. The Government thought that it would be a good idea to enter into contracts that would save it money if oil prices continued to go up, but failed to consider the impact of a collapse in the market.

As these examples demonstrate, the Government isn’t very good at managing risk.

In fact, as various commentators said after oil prices plummeted from nearly $150 per barrel to well under $50, that doesn’t seem to be its objective. Rather, it would appear to be speculating, which is all very well when it is right, but otherwise potentially disastrous.

No wonder people worry about a debt crisis.

The Opposition plays on their fears in the hope of generating a reaction. With every new loan the Government takes, it gives the impression that the world is about to end. No doubt that is simpler than trying to understand whether that particular deal makes sense, working out what it would do instead and explaining the whole thing to the electorate. But that is what the UNP would have to do if it were running the country.

It’s about time it started to look like it could.

This article was published in The Island on 5th June 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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