Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sri Lanka: Get lost, media

By Namini Wijedasa | Lakbima News

It is true that Sri Lanka has rarely been a model of transparency. Still, what conceivable reason could there have been for preventing foreign media from covering public hearings of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission held earlier this month in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu?

If the long-suffering Tamils that gave evidence before the LLRC at these two venues are to be deprived of having their story heard by those who want to hear it, have any lessons been learnt at all?

‘Incarceration’ of information

In post-LTTE Sri Lanka, archaic laws are repeatedly invoked throughout the government sector to prevent essential information from reaching voters. Take a recent example - President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to New York. Ideally, journalists should not have to beg for information about this luxurious pilgrimage (as it has transpired to be for most).

How many were on the president’s delegation; what business did each have to be on that delegation; where were they accommodated; was a flight chartered to fly them there or did they take the cheapest travel options; how long would they stay there; and, crucially, how much does the visit cost the tax-paying public. But none of this information is volunteered while raising these questions does not get a journalist anywhere.

In the absence of a vibrant opposition, we are left to depend on disgruntled persons within the government apparatus to leak the facts. And spiralling state control of the public sector may soon put an end to such ‘impudence’.

During the difficult period of the conflict, all manner of information was withheld from the public on the pretext of it being “sensitive” and “harmful” to either the war effort or the country. In many cases, it was neither.

After the war, vast categories of information continue to be controlled. The overriding concern appears to be that the release of such information will cause voters to disfavour the government and must therefore be religiously hidden. For example, it remains impossible to obtain accurate data about public expenditure and state deals or contracts.

Pointless exercise

But some of the government’s actions in this regard simply make no sense. Take the repeated confiscation of The Economist by customs authorities each time it publishes a story on Sri Lanka that may seem critical of the Rajapaksa regime. Customs sends it for approval to the Department of Government Information and it is, more often than not, released to the public albeit late.

Two issues of The Economist, however, never made it to the market this year. The May 20th newspaper contained an article called ‘Putting the Raj in Rajapaksa’ that described how President Rajapaksa had put himself in control of 78 government institutions following the UPFA victory in parliamentary elections. “Reconciliation takes a back seat as a band of brothers settles in,” it said. The May 27th edition published an editorial titled ‘Don’t ban Ban’ that said foreigners should press Sri Lanka’s government to accept a UN inquiry into the war.

The confiscation of the newspaper was reported by major international news organisations. The last time this happened (when customs delayed distribution over an editorial that criticised the passing of the 18th Amendment) the story even made its way into the daily press briefing at the UN headquarters in New York.

If anything, it is unnecessary — indeed, nonsensical — to detain a print edition of an international magazine when the content that the government finds objectionable has already been disseminated via the internet. Each time The Economist is confiscated, the sensitive content is more widely circulated through email, read on internet sites and debated.

None of the articles or editorials contains anything the Sri Lankan public don’t already know. It is doubly ridiculous therefore to hear Keheliya Rambukwella, government spokesman, say: “Sri Lanka has no official censorship but any material that comes to the country triggers a threat in terms of national security and the country’s sovereignty may be held for a couple of days. That is the government policy.”

In the end, this pointless exercise only leads to extensive negative publicity for the government despite most detained issues being eventually released.

North still taboo

Then, there is this question of permission to cover the north of Sri Lanka. This is particularly irksome to foreign journalists or to journalists working for foreign news organisations based in Sri Lanka. Reporters from local media institutions do not seem to face the constraints they do.

From conversations with a variety of journalists attached to international media (both here and abroad), it was learnt that authorisation is still required for anything beyond Omanthai. Once an application is lodged, the modus operandi is to give the applicants such a run around that they either quit or agree to rare chaperoned tours. The latter come complete with a pre-arranged programme and handpicked interview candidates. Even in this post-war era, the government refuses to entertain anything but propaganda.

Travel to Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi or any other part of the north for the purpose of reporting needs defence ministry consent. Even a simple story on de-mining would require permission. One visiting journalist found that defence ministry approval was necessary for a story about fishing off the east coast. Another asked permission to cover elections in April and gave up after deducing that the okay would never come.

And the BBC discovered in early September that the defence ministry would not grant it authorisation to cover public hearings of the LLRC in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. Another leading international newspaper tried for several weeks to obtain defence ministry permission for the same event but was sent from pillar to post before cancelling its intended visit.

This is not only bizarre — given that these were public hearings — it is a gross injustice to the innocent Tamils that gave evidence before the commission. Deliberately blocked from the process, international media were forced to scavenge for scraps of information from local newspapers.

The LLRC was intended to be an exercise in accountability artfully designed to keep the international community at bay. The government should have encouraged the participation of foreign media in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. Instead, the authorities ran scared. Apprehension over information that northern Tamils may hold seems to guide media policy even now.

Not that there is any declared media policy. Reporters are merely left with the bitter emotion that they are being sent around in circles. There is a general feeling, especially among visiting journalists, of not knowing what needs permission, who grants permission or what the set way is of applying for permission. “We were never turned down,” said one reporter, asking to remain anonymous. “Our requests were held up and we went back and forth.”

There is no published list of areas to which travel would require defence ministry permission. Would, for instance, a reporting job in Mannar need prior approval? Could you go to Batticaloa and film freely? Are all areas of Trincomalee open to foreign journalists? “You could be turned back at any point and there is nobody to take responsibility,” said another reporter, also on condition of anonymity.

A visiting Japanese photographer was turned down permission in August to use the A9 road for travel to Jaffna. He tried his luck on public transport, was detected at Omanthai and turned back. He returned to the Media Centre for National Security and applied for permission. He was told he couldn’t travel through Wanni but could fly to Jaffna. He ended up being escorted around the peninsula.

So, what stories in the north are taboo to foreign journalists and why? Writers and photographers recently taken by the Central Bank to an official event in Kilinochchi were prohibited from taking any photographs between Vavuniya and Kilinochchi.

Sometimes applications lodged with the Media Centre for National Security seem to disappear into thin air and there is no number that a journalist could call to track progress. There is certainly no guaranteed timeframe within which permission is granted.

You could wait forever, as one international reporter put it. And certainly many of them have been. It makes the government seem more insular than ever at a time when there is so much to say for openness and so little in defence of such mystifying restrictions.

“Journalists not permitted into certain places”: Director - Media Centre for National Security

Lakbima News asked Laxman Hulugalle, director of the Media Centre for National Security, about the procedure for granting permission to journalists to report in the north.

“Media who asked at the right time were given permission,” Hulugalle said. “Apart from a couple of technical problems, we have allowed all foreign and local journalists through. Only thing, they also have to understand that if they send me a letter at 3.30 pm or 4 pm and ask for permission to travel the following day, I won’t be able to give. But if they follow procedure and send in time, there is no delay... nothing.”

“Yesterday, I got a request to go to the north without a proper date and without people who are going,” he continued. “Because of that, I had to request them to send names and exact date.”

Hulugalle added, however, that journalists are not permitted into “certain places”. Asked why the BBC was not granted approval to cover LLRC hearings in the north, he said: “I also heard about this but I was out of the country for one week during that time so I don’t know if there was a delay.”

Hulugalle said journalists were free to travel to the east although they “could not go into camps and interview soldiers and various other people”.

For the sake of clarity, he explained that all applications have to be lodged through him. “They are sent to the ministry of defence through me,” he said. “I have to recommend. Generally it takes about one working day or two. They can always send an email or something. We have no policy of preventing any journalist but if any organisation who has harmed the integrity of Sri Lanka asks, we have an inquiry. For instance, if Channel 4 wants to come again, we have to think twice.”

There is no point addressing letters directly to the secretary of defence or other officials in the defence establishment because these are returned to MCNS for approval, he said.

© Lakbima News

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Top US business leaders express keen interest in investment opportunities in Sri Lanka

While on his official visit to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, President Mahinda Rajapaksa met with leading American business leaders at a luncheon to outline emerging opportunities for investment in Sri Lanka.

Business executives from a variety of industries, including the aerospace and defense community, the hospitality and tourism industry, and beverage industry attended the luncheon held at New York City's Helmsley Hotel. Executives from the Coca Cola Co., the Boeing Co., Google, Hilton Hotels & Resorts and Starwood Hotels & Resorts were among the nearly 100 Business Leaders, Analysts, representatives of Chambers of Commerce and Industry present at the occasion.

Amidst his busy schedule President Rajapaksa mingled with the American Business leaders meeting and greeting each person individually and requesting them to focus new interest in Sri Lanka as an investment opportunity.

Members of the US business community shared the view of a key representative of the pharmaceutical industry giant Pfizer Inc., that "This forum has the potential to grow into a US-Sri Lanka business council to bring together companies and government." "Companies like Pfizer want to invest in emerging markets like Sri Lanka," the Pfizer representative said, noting that the business luncheon allowed corporate executives to meet government officials and Sri Lankan business leaders. "It is a great way to start a dialogue," he said.

The Keynote Speech by Prof. GL Peiris, Minister of External Affairs Sri Lanka, said Sri Lanka boasts an economy with strong fundamentals - a market poised for continued growth and international investment. Noting the nation's promising economic future, Prof. Peiris said "Sri Lanka is today, without any exaggeration, one of the world's best destinations for investment.... We are on the threshold of an economic renaissance in Sri Lanka.''

The Sri Lankan delegation's visit to the United States comes as the nation enjoys remarkable economic success during a global downturn. Sri Lanka's per capita income more than doubled during the past five years and the International Monetary Fund recently upgraded Sri Lanka to "middle income emerging market" status.

Ms. Esperanza Gomez Jelalian, executive director of the Asia Department at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted the Chamber's support for Sri Lanka. "We are firmly committed to a working relationship between our countries," Ms. Jelalian said

After video presentation that focused on the new opportunities for investment with peace, and a stable government, the participants were apprised that as the second-fastest growing Asian economy after China, Sri Lanka now looks for additional development of the nation's infrastructure, including its roads, ports, energy sector and water systems.

The booming tourism industry in Sri Lanka is expected to continue growing and the expansion of hotels and related development in Sri Lanka is needed to match growing demand. Those present were reminded that Sri Lankan tourism industry received a huge boost early this year when The New York Times named Sri Lanka the No. 1 one place to travel to in 2010, with similar accolades from the National Geographic and other leading travel publications.

Prof Peiris hailed what he saw as an "Economic Renaissance in Sri Lanka where opportunities abound for Foreign Investors"; he identified wide range of areas in tourism alone, such as Eco-Tourism, Health Tourism with the search for cures closer to nature as found in Ayurveda, and Spiritual Interest, manifest in the Buddhist traditions in the country. He also saw the possibilities that are available for value addition in the agricultural sector, bringing Sri Lankan agricultural products to the threshold of the western markets, and the vast untapped resources in the fisheries sector.

Emphasizing the remarkable success of the Sri Lankan economy after the undoubted defeat of terrorism, Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga said a clear example of the buoyant economy was the fact that although it had taken one year since the end of the conflict for the Colombo Stock Exchange, among the best performing bourses in the world, to reach the first trillion rupees in market capitalization, taking just nine months to exceed the second trillion, with foreign investors contributing much to the rise.

The US Business Leaders were also able to interact with the 15 member Sri Lankan Business Delegation that was also present in New York.


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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sri Lanka's CID summons propaganda unit head of main opposition

Colombo Page

Sri Lanka's Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has summoned the propaganda unit head of main opposition United national party (UNP) parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera to record a statement.

The CID has summoned Samaraweera to the headquarters on Tuesday (28) at 10:30 a.m.

Samaraweera has told the local media that the CID wanted to record a statement from him regarding some posters that were put up by the party to protest against the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

According to Samaraweera, a CID Inspector had gone to the UNP headquarters Sirikotha, and left a message and had later contacted him and asked him to come to the CID headquarters.

The case regarding the controversial posters was earlier investigated by the Mirihana Police and was later handed over to the CID.

Samaraweera has already claimed responsibility for designing the posters and placing an order to print them at a press at Delkanda in Nugegoda. The controversial posters depict President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the former military dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin and a god with six heads stamped with images of the President's brothers and sons.

© Colombo Page

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