The Sunday Times on the web

The Situation Report

20th December 1998

Another shady deal whilst censorship continues

By Iqbal Athas

Front Page |
News/Comment |
Business | Plus | Sports |
Mirror Magazine

Front Page
Mirror Magazine

A civilian official took over the role of Censor last week, ending a six month regime under the Sri Lanka Army, and signalling the beginning of a new era of enforcement.

It seemed a case of the proverbial same old wine in a new bottle. The wide ranging regulations governing the Censorship remained just the same.

Only the enforcer changed, from the staid Major General S.T.T. (Sathis) Jayasundera (Operations Commander, Colombo) to the ebullient Ariya Rubasinghe, Director of Government Information.

Although the censorship did not make it mandatory, for both the local and foreign media, to submit all their copy to the Army Censor, most media did forward them. Often deletions were made though some of them were arguable. There were also the unusual instances of additions to copy, like lower casualty figures for security forces and higher for Tiger guerrillas.

There were also unusual instances of the media being warned in writing over matters that did not come within the purview of the censorship, like reportage on procurement and corrupt practices. In fact, Government officials made it known provisions to this effect, which existed during previous censorship, have been deleted when regulations were enforced on June 5, 1998.

Ariya Rubasinghe, who now wears the mantle of Censor, met representatives of the media at his office last Monday to discuss working arrangements. Though he took the opportunity to admonish some newspapers, waving those issues in his hand, he made it clear he was no advocate of censorship.

He spelt out a set of ground rules, different to what existed with the Army Censor. The Regulations, Mr. Rubasinghe asserted, clearly set out the areas covered by the censorship. Hence, he expected the media to observe it. They needed to consult him only if they entertained any doubts on whether or not a story contravened regulations. In other words, a form of enforced self-censorship.

Mr Rubasinghe's ruling and the Publication and Transmission of Sensitive Military Information Regulations do not make that an easy task. Unlike the regulations that governed censorship in the past, the current one covers such a broad area and practically anything can be construed as a violation.

It prohibits 'any material containing any matter which pertains to any operation carried out or proposed to be carried out, by the Armed Forces or the Police Force (including the Special Task Force), the deployment of troops or personnel, or the deployment or use of equipment, including aircraft or naval vessels, by any such forces, or any statement pertaining to the official conduct or the performance of the Head or any member of any of the Armed Forces or Police Force'.

Even an innocuous report, like a group of Brigadiers and Colonels making plans to sing Christmas carols at Army Headquarters or conducting a sale to raise funds for injured soldiers, can be construed as 'official conduct' and therefore a violation of the censorship regulations. Or more seriously, the conduct of a corrupt officer who has amassed wealth through shady military procurements.

On the other hand, 'any operations carried out' (in the past) have been reported in the media, some of them in exhaustive detail. Such reportage, including pictorial accounts, are readily accessible and cannot, therefore, be construed as sensitive military information.

Of course, 'any operation proposed to be carried out,' or 'the deployment of equipment' is an entirely different matter. On no occasion has the national media reported details of any impending military operation, given dates, times and other plans. That would naturally endanger national security and place the lives of troops in jeopardy. Censorship or not, the media has observed this cardinal tenet. If any apologists for censorship believed otherwise, it would be a worthwhile exercise to invite them to cite examples.

However, there have been some strong exceptions due to no fault of the media. One clear illustration of this came in the months and weeks before the launch of 'Operation Riviresa' to re-capture the Jaffna peninsula. After 100 days of peace talks with the LTTE failed and the Government declared war in what has turned out to be Eelam War III, several PA leaders made public statements at political rallies and elsewhere about their plans to crack down on Tiger guerrillas, to finish them within six months.

There were repeated declarations that Jaffna would be 'liberated' soon. There were also declarations that the north would be linked to the rest of the country. As part of its duty to keep the public informed, the media reported these events. The political leaders cannot be faulted for making the utterances since they were apprising the public. Nor could the media, for it was playing the role of a messenger in delivering that message to the public.

Yet, an inevitable consequence is the fact that the enemy also becomes privy to such declarations. Would they not benefit by such information and make preparations to counter such moves ? Why then accuse the media of revealing 'sensitive military information'? That too during times when phases of the ongoing Eelam War III result in reversals, debacles or do not produce the desired results.

The only 'free flow' of information disseminated during the ongoing censorship are the official versions put out by the Government. That too in the backdrop of a ban on media personnel visiting operational areas.

And now, the declaration by Mr. Rubasinghe means a daily tight rope walk for the media in reporting an issue that concerns every Sri Lankan. This is not to fault the friendly and genial Mr. Rubasinghe. But the blanket censorship, which has come to stay, runs counter to the PA Government's declared policy of transparency and its commitment to uphold the public's right to know the truth. What is sadly very insidious is not only the regulations governing the censorship itself but the manner in which it is being sought to be enforced. The warning that accompanies the enforced self censorship is clear say good things and stay on the side of the law or else? !!!

This is 17 years after the separatist war, at a time when technology has revolutionised life with satellite communications, the Internet, e-mail, the cell phone, international direct dialling among other things. These years have also seen the growth and modernisation of the security forces, particularly the Sri Lanka Army, the single largest security arm of the state.

An year after Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known), received independence from British rule, the Ceylon Army was raised through the Army Act approved by Parliament on October 10, 1949. In the past nearly ten decades, the Army has continued to function on the traditions left behind by the British Army.

Even today, British assistance is being received to raise standards of professionalism and efficiency. On Wednesday (December 23), the first batch of some 200 officers, will pass out from the Sri Lanka Army's Command and Staff College located at Batalanda. Colonel John Field of the British Army has instilled on them today's essentials that make an officer and a gentleman in the British Army.

Yet, one aspect that appears to have slipped out altogether is the all important question of media relations (or public relations as the British Army prefers to call it). This is one area where the British Army has made significant strides. Guidelines, colloquially referred to as the 'Green Book' now encompass proposed working arrangements with the media in times of emergency, tension, conflict or war.

Subjects covered include registration by the media, the provision of reporting facilities, the selection of accredited representatives, the designation of 'war correspondents', forward transmission units, pooling and security vetting. It also outlines the policy on embargoes, casualty reporting and prisoners of war.

A 96 page British Army guide to Media Handling begins with the following preamble:

"In a free society organisations function more effectively with public goodwill and support. The Army is no exception. Public Relations is the means through which that goodwill and support is cultivated."

What is Public Relations ? This is what the guide says:

Public Relations are defined as: "The deliberate and sustained effort to establish mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics."

"The 1985 Defence White Paper gave another specific definition as it applies to the services:

"The role of Defence Public Relations is to promote and enhance the public perception of the fighting services as defenders of the country and its interests, as good employers, as efficient and cost effective users of tax payersí money, and as contributors to the well-being of the civil communities of which they form part."

The guide says, In promoting the Army, the Director of Public Relations (Army), DPR (A), is required:

"To achieve and maintain a good public image, understanding and support for the Regular Army, the TA (Territorial Army) and Reserves, through effective communication both directly and indirectly through the medium of communication both directly and indirectly through the medium of print, film, radio and television."

"The objective of Army PR is to improve awareness and keep the public informed of the presence, purpose, roles, effectiveness and the value for money of the Regular Army, the TA and the Reserves, both at home and abroad, and emphasise the part played by the soldier in society and their links with society…"

Though the media has been distanced, and sometimes perceived to be the 'second enemy' today, relations between the Army and the Media had remained close, even as recently as 1960s. During that time, the media, in keeping with British practice, was allowed to even cover Court Martial proceedings.

"It should be recognised that although Courts Martial do not produce positive PR", a British Army note pointed out that "they are a public demonstration that the Army is determined to keep its house in order. Press coverage may therefore be regarded as healthy, if painful, element in the process and tradition of Army justice and we should not be seen to be trying to evade it."

All this reference to censorship and media relations become relevant in view of several important events in the defence establishment this week.

Main among them is the change of command in the Sri Lanka Army. The Ministry of Defence last Monday sent an official letter to Army Headquarters naming Major General Srilal Weerasooriya as the new Army Commander. (See box story on this page) He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General. He assumed office on December 16.

Outgoing Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte, was promoted to the rank of a full General and was retired. The move came as a surprise since he was billed to take over as General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Joint Operations Command. In fact, he functioned in an ex officio capacity as GOC of a Joint Operations Command with a limited scope.

An expanded Joint Operations Command (JOC) with wider powers was to be created. Buildings required for this purpose had been set apart at Army Headquarters and work had got under way to refurbish it. Officials at the Ministry of Defence have been studying the regulations that governed the working of JOC which was in existence during the tenure of the previous Government.

The move to set up a Joint Operations Command met with stiff opposition, particularly from the Deputy Minister of Defence, General Anuruddha Ratwatte. The fact that the proposal has been dropped is being viewed in defence circles as an acknowledgement of his objections. In the circumstances, these circles do not rule out the possibility of Gen. Ratwatte continuing to play a direct role in the campaign against Tiger guerrillas.

Government sources now say Gen. Daluwatte may receive another appointment, though not necessarily in the security establishment.

Another significant event this week was the ceremony marking the Presentation of Presidentís Standards to The 1st Reconnaisance Regiment of the Sri Lanka Army at the Army grounds.

Senior ranks were disappointed that the President herself was not present to bestow the honour of awarding her own standards. The word colours indicate one or more of the flags or guidons carried by military units. It originally referred only to flags carried by dismounted units such as infantry. Later, it referred also to the standards and guidons of cavalry, mechanised or other mounted units to ensigns flown aboard ship and flags in general. The term gained wide currency in a figurative sense, an Army note on the significance of standards explained.

The point was made at the ceremony by none other than a former Armoured Corps hand, one time diplomat and Defence Secretary, General Cyril Ranatunga. He said it would have been a great honour and more appropriate traditionally if President Kumaratunga was present to personally make the awards.

However, he made it clear they were happy Gen. Ratwatte was there to grace the occasion.

The past week has also seen the emergence some startling details on a controversial procurement deal, easily the largest in South East Asia for this year.

I refer to the deal with China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), just weeks ahead of a Chinese Government crackdown on the military doing business. The deal came despite strong objections from Norinco, the acknowledged State trading arm for military hardware. The Sri Lanka Government and Norinco have entered into an agreement where the former had agreed to make all its purchases exclusively from Norinco. Details of this were exclusively revealed in The Sunday Times.

Documents now available with The Sunday Times show that the deal covered just over US $ 64 million or over Rs 4288 million. A payment of ten per cent has already been made and remaining amount, authoritative sources said, were to be spread over a period of five years. However, pressure moves were yet afoot to expedite further instalments.

For obvious reasons The Sunday Times will not publish details of the deal or the items procured. However, one question is raised in the national interest. That is the purchase of 170,000 rounds of heavy explosive 152 mm artillery shells. This unusually high quantity is said to be sufficient for several years. One source said it was enough for well over 25 years and wondered whether it could all be fired with the guns now available with the Army. The consignment is now lying in an open area at a base. Some wonder whether it would be a case of being dumped in the sea after being exposed to the elements for some years.

Interestingly they are for use in 152 mm Howitzer type artillery guns, acquired for the first time. They number less than 40. Senior military officials conversant with procurements are shocked that such a large quantity has been procured. The quantity of 170,000 rounds is in addition to a further 25,000 rounds of full charge artillery shells.

Heightening concern is the amount paid for the 170,000 rounds. It is at the rate of US $ 100 each and totals a staggering US $ 17 million or over Rs 1,139 million.

Some provisions of the ongoing censorship prevents The Sunday Times from publishing more details about how the deal was worked out, both by those in uniform and outside it.

So, once again a public who are funding the conduct of the ongoing separatist war, sacrificing their sons and daughters for the effort, are unaware their moneys are going to make millionaires overnight. The instant millionaires are both in uniform and outside it.

The media has been branded as providers of 'sensitive military information' to the enemy. Many are the ruses adopted to harass or silence the media. But those who are profiting unconsciously from procurements are getting away scot-free. Some also emerge as the best patriots and heroes the nation has produced. Alas, a censorship is their body armour !!

New Army Commander - a profile

One afternoon in late 1995, then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Gerry de Silva, was in his third floor office at Army Headquarters.

A senior Army officer walked past the commandos who stood along the corridors. A loud click unlocked the security mechanism on the door. He entered, stood to attention and saluted his commander. Later he sat down and broke the bad news. He wanted to quit the Army.

The reason-some soldiers under his charge during ìOperation Leap Forward' had resorted to very bad conduct. Hence, he wanted to leave the Army 'honourably.' The exchange went on for nearly 15 minutes.

Lt. Gen. Gerry de Silva had persuaded this senior officer to change his mind.

And last Wednesday, it was this senior officer who took over as Sri Lanka's new Army Commander.

Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, a shy and reserved military officer who prefers to avoid the media spotlight (and even media men) made it a point to invite Lt. Gen. de Silva for the cocktail party at the Station Officer's Mess in Colombo on Fraday night. There the seniors, both in service and retired, met to felicitate Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya.

And Lt. Gen. de Silva, who only complained last week that he has been 'deprived of his gratuity and pension,' was conspicuous by his presence.

Born on December 22, 1943, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya was educated at St Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia. He joined the Army as an officer cadet on May 9, 1963.

He received his initial training at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kabul and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1965. He was posted to the 4th Regiment of Sri Lanka Artillery.

He underwent subsequent training in the School of Artillery in India and attended the National Defence College in New Delhi. He has held a number of Command/Staff/Instructor appointments.

They included Commandant, Army Training Centre, Director Operations at Army Headquarters and General Officer Commanding Task Force 1.

He was appointed Overall Operations Commander (OOC) on May 1, 1996. He was also the Chief of Staff of the Army.

Taraki's Column

Editorial/Opinion Contents

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Hosted By LAcNet

Situation Report Archive

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.