ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 2, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 14
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Wijeya Pariganaka

Publish and be damned

During the 20 plus years of the northern insurgency, the issue of defence procurements and its reportage has been a 'hot potato', so to say, on two counts. Firstly, in that the political leadership and the senior officials at the Defence Ministry and the top brass in the Armed Services have been irked by the exposures. And secondly, in that the Media that support the war against terror and separation are torn between sweeping things under the carpet for fear of demoralising the troops, and exposing corrupt deals in the greater good of the public interest. Previous examples are aplenty.

There was a time when some unknown tenderer was offered a contract to provide the ration packs for soldiers. They were unfit for human consumption. Unable to get rid of the stock, they were given to the cadets at the Army Training Centre at Diyatalawa. They say that an army marches on its stomach, but these unfortunate young recruits had to pay the price with running stomachs for a corrupt deal by their superiors.

Then, there was the case of the bullet-proof vests contracted for the frontline soldiers. At a random check after their purchase, at firing-range, bullets penetrated two of the four tested. The British merchant refused to take the lot back, but in generosity that knew no bounds, offered to pay compensation in the event they failed in battle. One has only to look around and you will see an abundance of evidence of those who have profited from this insurgency.

The question then, is whether it is the reporting of these dubious deals that demoralises the Armed Forces, or the very commission of them by those in charge of the prosecution of the military effort, that does so?

In India, there was the infamous Bofors scandal -- the purchase of a Swedish gun for its Army. The scandal reached the then Prime Minister's Office. Nobody accused the Media that exposed the questionable deal of demoralising the country's Armed Forces.

There is an unwritten but universally acclaimed duty cast on the National Media of any country, i.e. to protect the National Interest and to expose wrongdoings by those holding the reins of the Government in trust for the people. Exercising these twin duties is not always easy -- as often, especially in times of conflict, it is a thin line that divides them.

Now, once again, the exposure of a mega arms purchase has caused more than an irritant in the corridors of power in general, and the Defence Establishment in particular. A Parliamentary Select Committee to go into these purchases has now been accepted by the Government. That democracy in Sri Lanka, with all its shortcomings, is still alive and kicking is evident -- Parliament with an opposition, a Judiciary free from Government control and a Free Media are the hallmarks of this country despite the rigours of a two decade old bloody insurgency.

Most unsympathetic Western donor countries don't seem to give that credit to this country, nor support it in its time of distress. On the other hand, the Government is not doing any service to itself, or the country by its own conduct, the way it goes around with blatant violations of human rights; suppressing dissent; and making vitriolic, ill-advised statements against foreign diplomats, however unfair they have been. Thus, the Government is only looking up and spitting at its face. Outside Sri Lanka, anti-national propagandists have pounced on these and portrayed the country as a dangerous place to visit; where respect for human rights is low and corruption high; where democracy is but a façade and the military has a grip on the Establishment.

There is an urgent need for the Government to reverse its present 'hit now and repent later' strategy. The US Media almost in its entirety, and a greater section of the UK Media blindly invoked patriotic zeal by backing its Armed Forces into Iraq. They were fed with false information. They were asked by their respective President and Prime Minister whether they were with them or against them. They replied in the affirmative, partly afraid that they would be labelled traitors if they did not.

Gradually, they began to ask questions, and today, not only the Media but even the respective governments admit they might have got it wrong in Iraq. That is why asking questions in the midst of combat is not always a bad thing. It can save lives. It can save money. The Government must make no mistake. Most Media in this country are only exercising their constitutional right of practising their profession. And their profession demands that they keep the citizens informed.

Their interest in winning the war against the forces of terror and separation, and of good governance is not second to any other patriotic citizen, valiant soldier, right-thinking senior Government official or political leader of this country.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.