16th July 2000
A Presidential initiative leads to Government to Government deals
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, last week sent some of her Ministerial colleagues as special envoys to meet leaders of countries that offered support after the military debacles at Elephant Pass and the threats posed to the Jaffna peninsula.
The support did not mean that defence equipment was all made available to Sri Lanka at no cost. In almost all instances barring a handful of exceptions, they were paid for. But President Kumaratunga is appreciative of the immediate response to the Government's appeal to meet urgent requirements. This was in marked contrast to the tenure of the previous Government when some of the present day suppliers refused to sell equipment even for immediate cash.
Significant among the trips made by special envoys was the visit to the Czech Republic by Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and the Media Mangala Samaraweera. As special envoy of President Kumaratunga, he met Czech President, Vaclav Havel, delivered a personal note of appreciation from her and held a round of talks.
The move, undoubtedly, healed some strains in relations between Colombo and Prague over an impending multi-million dollar military procurement deal. Details of the deal itself cannot be discussed in view of the ongoing censorship.
However, as reported earlier, responding to the Government's invitation to foreign suppliers of defence equipment, a top level delegation from the Czech Republic's Embassy in New Delhi arrived in Colombo for talks with the Government. Defence equipment in the Czech Republic are manufactured by state owned industries. There is no diplomatic mission in Colombo for the Czech Republic. Hence the delegation from New Delhi.
The Czech team called on government leaders and held talks with defence officials handling procurement in May, this year. It led to the successful completion of a deal. An Army team was invited to inspect items to be purchased.
A pre-purchase Army inspection team that was to have gone to the Czech Republic first ended up in the Slovak Republic and Hungary. They were inspecting the same equipment for which deals had been concluded with the Czech Republic. The team was to fly from there to Prague, the Czech capital but the authorities there had refused them visas. The team was later ordered by Army Headquarters to return to Colombo.
These developments saw the Czech authorities raising issue with the Government. The Sunday Times learnt that President Kumaratunga, directed Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, to go into the matter. Army Headquarters has now forwarded a report on it to him and further action on the matter is being awaited.
President Kumaratunga, whose personal attention had been drawn to the developments, directed that an Army delegation be sent immediately to Prague for inspection and report. The team was headed by none other than a high ranking Army officer from the Presidential security entourage and comprised three others.
Travel formalities have delayed the arrival in Prague . They were in the Czech capital at the same time special envoy Samaraweera was there. The team is due to return to Colombo shortly for the finalisation of the deal. Czech officials are also due for this purpose.
In a note to the Czech supplier, Army Headquarters has called upon them to re-consider their prices when talks begin in Colombo. This is said to be in a bid to obtain further beneficial price concessions, particularly in the wake of criticism of indiscriminate procurements and allegations of corruption.
President Kumaratunga's personal intervention is underscored by her keenness to ensure that a Government to Government deal, agreed after talks in Colombo, was in keeping with her own directive to eliminate middlemen who have been profiting by the ongoing separatist war.
But the Rupavahini, the national television network and the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, the state run radio, both coming under the purview of her People's Alliance Government projected a different view when they gave full prominence and commented on the Situation Report of July 2 which referred to the deal with the Czech Republic and the Army team's visit to the Slovak Republic and Hungary.
The next day, (July 3) a voice which hid behind visuals of the Pasuvadana programme after the news bulletin, which projected the Situation Report column logo and the name of the author, held forth about the reportage being beneficial to the LTTE \'d0 a new tactic often used by some influential sections of the Government to brand anyone who is perceived to be not toeing the line. It had the shades of the famous 'confessions' on camera by Selvathurai Senthinathan, the self styled LTTE 'confidante' who purportedly translated the Situation Report for Velupillai Prabhakaran. The man's whereabouts are not known since he made his TV debut. He pleaded with a senior intelligence official, soon after appearing on TV, not to send him to the Jaffna peninsula.
It would be a waste of time to delve at length with this self appointed pundit's sermon on how the local media should behave. But one moot point becomes very relevant. The gravamen of the arguments he propounded was that the public of this country are not interested in corruption but are only concerned about an end to the war. How he arrived at this pious conclusion is not clear. But it was quite clear someone, somewhere was piqued by The Sunday Times exposure of corruption in military procurements.
One would have dismissed the exhortation as the odd aberration of an ill informed idiot. But a day later (July 4), the SLBC's morning live programme "Subharathi" was also devoted to the contents of the Situation Report. Unlike the SLRC, the compere mentioned the author's name and went on to make almost the same comments. In addition, he invited listener comments. Within seconds there was a "caller' chipping in to concur with what the compere said. Here again the moot point was the assertion that the public of this country \plain\fs19\b are not interested in corruption but are only concerned about an end to the war\plain\fs19 .
The compere is one who has mastered the fine art of vituperation from his early days in a left wing political journal. During that period he was one of the meanest critics of the Bandaranaikes that included (now President) Chandrika Bandaranaike.
Like jobs, times have also changed.
The fact that these assertions are not the policy of the People's Alliance Government is amply demonstrated by the action of President Kumaratunga over the recent Czech deal.
Why then the campaign to assert that the people of Sri Lanka are not interested in corruption ? Is this true ? If the declared and oft repeated policy of the Government is to eliminate corruption, how does assertions that people are not interested in corruption help the Government ? It can only go to soothe the minds of the corrupt that two voices in two powerful State run media concerns are espousing a unique cause \'d0 legitimise corruption in Sri Lanka to help end the separatist war. Whom are they speaking for and whose cause are they championing at the expense of embarrassment to the Government ?
This is whilst President Kumaratunga has made passionate appeals to the public to make sacrifices by donating at least a day's pay for the war effort. She has also initiated a number of other unprecedented measures to help soldiers in the war effort and sought fuller public co-operation.
Are the public to make sacrifices, both in cash and in kind, knowing very well that a part (or even whole) would end up with those corrupt ?
The conflicting, if not confusing actions preceding the pre- procurement inspections of the Czech offer gives rise to the impression of hidden interests. Particularly so, considering the expressed directive of President Kumaratunga that procurements be preferably on a Government to Government basis to eliminate the undesirable influences of the middleman arms dealer system along with its associated attraction of graft and commissions.
That directive by itself manifests the desire to maintain transparency in dealings particularly as these fast track procurements by pass normal financial procedures and controls. That includes the relaxation or by passing of tender procedures \'d0 a move welcomed by lobbyists for middlemen arms dealers. Provisions to by pass such procedures undoubtedly exist. But they are for exceptional circumstances and not the rule. In this instance, the relaxation of procedures came long before the nation was placed on a war footing'.
In the wake of many allegations of corruption in the procurement of equipment to the security forces, many of them also suggesting the supply of inferior or inappropriate equipment that have resulted in many military reversals, the directive by President Kumaratunga is not only salutary but also essential to the war effort.
Her directive is unreservedly aimed at strengthening military capability and effectiveness by eliminating any weaknesses in re-equipping the security forces by possible corruption in the procurement of defence equipment. That against the background of allegations of corruption is a pre-requisite to the successful execution of the war.
In the face of these actions intended to improve the war effort, it is preposterous of State media like the Rupavahini and the SLBC to even remotely suggest that the public are not interested in corruption but are only concerned with ending the war.
To suggest otherwise is to display not only the lack of reality but also to expose ignorance of public awareness. To say so in the context of the issues involved is to be generous.
Censor's Guidelines for the media
Fresh guidelines have been issued to the media under the ongoing censorship by Competent Authority (Censor), Ariya Rubesinghe, who is also Director of Information. This is the first time such a move has been made.
He says this is in addition to the ground rules he set out during a discussion with media representatives at his office on June 4. This was after new regulations re-imposing the censorship was gazetted on July 1.
Here is the full text circulated to the media by Mr. Rubesinghe:
GUIDELINES ISSUED BY THE COMPETENT AUTHORITY UNDER REGULATION 14 (10) OF THE EMERGENCY REGULATION NO 1 OF 2000 AS AMENDED BY GAZETTE EXTRAORDINARY NO 1138/34 OF 1ST JULY, 2000
1. Material connected with National Security and public interest:
(a) Competent Authority must be satisfied that the material would pose a substantial threat and prejudice to national security.
(b) Mere advertence to issues that deal with the security situations may not warrant censorship unless the content is such that it must result in national security being endangered.
(c) The Competent Authority must be of the opinion that the publication or transmission of the material was calculated to cause prejudice to the national security.
Material connected with preservation of public order:
(a) In decisions and opinions dealing with the preservation of public order, the Competent Authority must be satisfied and must form a reasonable opinion that the material is of such a serious nature that it would per se bring about a substantial disruption to public order;
(b) This, however, would not extend to material which would fall short of such a disruption of public order, mutiny, riot or civil commotion;
(c) These regulations do not contemplate material that would fall outside the ambit of the above but published or transmitted merely to keep the public informed of the current situation including the security situation and matters which would give rise to public debate.
MATERIAL CONNECTED WITH SUPPLIES AND SERVICES ESSENTIAL TO THE LIFE OF THE COMMUNITY.
(a) The supplies and services are also necessary to be identified as essential to the life of the community.
(b) This regulation foresees disruption to supplies and services that are so essential that those would threaten the life of the community.
(c) In this instance the phrase "life of the community' must be interpreted to mean as those supplies and services that are essential and fundamental to the community and would not include each and every service and supply that would be necessary in the ordinary course.
MATERIAL THAT WOULD ENCOURAGE PERSONS TO COMMIT BREACH OF ANY LAW OR INCITE OR ENCOURAGE PERSONS TO MUTINY, RIOT OR CIVIL COMMOTION.
(a) The Competent Authority must be satisfied and form an opinion that the relevant material encourages persons to commit breaches of any law and that breach would result in prejudice being caused to maintenance of public order or both these conditions, i.e. a breach would result in prejudice being caused to the maintenance of public order or supplies and services essential to the life of the community.
(b) With regard to the inciting or encouraging persons to mutiny, riot or civil commotion, the Competent Authority will consider the nature of the material and the likely impact it could have on the community at large and armed forces in the country.
Military operations past or present, official conduct of the security personnel in preservation of National Security, procurements and placements of weapons and military equipment and deployment of troops. With regard to the above the media may follow the official statements, releases issued by the relevant organisations. The media also should refrain from reporting any matter that would affect the morale of the security forces.
The Competent Authority must ensure before making an order that its reasons are recorded.
Mr. Rubesinghe told The Sunday Times "the entire intention of these guidelines is to confer more responsibility to the media'. He said the confines under which the media could operate within the censorship regulations have been spelt out.
"They have been severely mellowed down and it is the responsibility of the media to stick to the guidelines', he declared.
However, the Editor of a national newspaper, who spoke on grounds of anonymity, held a different view.
"Its regrettable that the so-called guidelines have been imposed without any form of consultation or dialogue with the media, or any organisation representing their interests. However, there is a lot of common ground between the media and most of the guidelines imposed', he said.
The Editor, a senior journalist who counts over three decades of experience, declared "all these years, even without guidelines, all responsible media have scrupulously observed the same requirements (or ground rules) on matters relating to national security, preservation of public order, supplies and services essential to the life of the community, not encouraging persons to breach of any law or inciting persons to mutiny, riot or resort to civil commotion. If that is acknowledged, then, there is no need for any censorship. If it is not acknowledged, it would be welcome if the Competent Authority, or any authority for that matter, cites instances where such breaches (as set out in the guidelines) have occurred'.
He added: "If there is common ground on most points, there are also grey areas that cast serious doubts on the intentions behind the restrictions. One such area is the reference to past military operations. How does one contravene national security if references are made to debacles in Mankulam, Pooneryn, Mand-aitivu and the like ? Another area is military procurements. How does one define military procurements ? Is a story about a reported military procurement (where the country of procurement or what is procured is not mentioned) only speaks of some corrupt people making a certain amount of money, at the expense of the soldier at the front who often gets dud equipment. How does that affect national security ?
"Yet another area that needs to be defined is the requirement that the media should refrain from reporting any matter that would affect the morale of the security forces.
"No responsible media has willfully indulged in this task but the definition is so broad someone can discern practically any report could demoralise the troops. For example a terrorist attack on a troop position causing casualties contained in a press release issued by the Special Media Information Centre, or a report that a group of troops in a battle area were down with dengue, or a report about a grand carnival in Colombo when the separatist war is going on or even the case of a nationally televised cricket match.
"Examples are many but some definition is necessary. Even without that definition, the media has not consciously published any deliberate account that could demoralise troops. Of course, public interest demands the publication of some reports which do pose morale problems. An example would be the Krishanthi Kumaraswamy rape and murder case where Government actions had to be reported.
"The only way to have a proper guideline is through good rapport and dialogue with the media. The media should not be force fed with sets of "perceived ideals" under various guises', the senior Editor said.
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