When governments, politicians and officials at home or diplomats commit faux pas they bury their heads in the sand to avoid answering legitimate questions. They seek refuge by blaming the media to escape embarrassment. How often have we heard the guilty say they have been “misquoted” or their remarks “misinterpreted”. The latest escape route is [...]


Tampering with facts and figures


When governments, politicians and officials at home or diplomats commit faux pas they bury their heads in the sand to avoid answering legitimate questions. They seek refuge by blaming the media to escape embarrassment. How often have we heard the guilty say they have been “misquoted” or their remarks “misinterpreted”.

The latest escape route is to blame most things on “fake news”, a ruse made popular by that recently ousted white supremacist US president Donald Trump who was not averse to faking news himself. Today social media is the main culprit because it lends itself to abuse and incompetence.

But that does not absolve the Government, its institutions and officials of tampering with facts and concocting stories to boost their egos or the egos of their bosses. Just the other day a new presidential spin doctor planted a story that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s conversation with the Director-General of the World Health Organisation resulted in the WHO approving the Chinese manufactured vaccine Sinopharm for emergency use.

Not only was this fabricated concoction as spurious as the anti-Covid ‘paniya’ that was marketed as a cure for the virus, but obviously caused acute embarrassment to the head of the WHO and the institution itself which within a few hours shot down in flames this bogus news.

Then earlier this month opposition parliamentarian Harsha de Silva exposed the fiddling of figures by the Central Bank in its 2020 Annual Report. It was no fault of the Central Bank, it appears. The jugglery was forced on the Bank by the Ministry of Finance which sought to project the budget deficit for 2020 as 11% when in fact it should have been 14%.

Over the last several months there have been accusations by those in the medical and healthcare profession that figures relating to the coronavirus have been doctored, if a pun is pardoned in these trying days for the public.

If the Finance Ministry is prepared to engage in such statistical falsehoods and compel the Central Bank to do the same then what reliance can the public and responsible institutions at home and abroad dependent on the accuracy of official reports have in important ministries and state agencies? Where then is the accountability and transparency these state agencies are expected to display?

The other day I was surprised to read some remarks made by Prof GL Peiris in parliament with regard to the determination of the Supreme Court on the petitions presented to Court by those who raised a series of objections to various clauses in the Colombo Port City Commission Bill.

The Bill was eventually passed by parliament this week in inordinate haste as though its passage was more important to the Sri Lankan people than dealing expeditiously and professionally with the fast spreading Covid pandemic that has seen several variants present in the country. But to that later.

Prof. Peiris’s indiscretion, if one might call it that, was nothing like the horrendous order by the Finance Ministry to the Central Bank to report a deliberate untruthful manipulation or the ego-boosting efforts of a spin doctor who should have been in Sri Lanka cricket team depleted of talent.

The day the contentious Colombo Port City Bill was up for debate Prof. Peiris told Parliament, “There is some misinformation circulating throughout the country regarding the Supreme Court determination on the Colombo Port City Commission Bill announced to the august assembly by the Speaker. It is claimed that the Supreme Court has said a two-thirds majority and the people’s approval at a referendum are needed for this Bill. This is baseless”. He goes on to say that the government through the Attorney-General’s Department submitted to the court certain amendments which were accepted and would be introduced at the Committee Stage. These would then obviate the constitutional inconsistencies present in original Bill which could be passed with a simple majority.

The learned professor is being disingenuous. One supposes that now as Education Minister he felt it was necessary to teach his parliamentary colleagues a lesson or two. After all he would know the quality of knowledge that is present in what he calls the “august assembly”. The public is unaware of the levels of education reached by the people’s representatives as those worthies in charge of Parliament are unwilling to disclose this crucial information fearing that it would unearth a couple of Einsteins and budding Socrates in their midst.

Admittedly Prof. Peiris has an impeccable academic record, is author of several books and papers on law and has lectured in internationally recognised universities and institutions in several parts of the world. On that score, I have no quarrel with Prof Peiris — how could I cross swords, as it were, with such a legal scholar who was already showing signs of his scholastic predilections when he was very much my junior at our alma mater!

But my contention with the professor is not on the law though there might well be other legal luminaries who might dispute his interpretations of the law in other areas of jurisprudence. My disagreement with GL, as he is more conveniently called, is his attempt at obfuscation.

The opening sentences in his address are what some might well call a sleight of hand. While referring to “misinformation” circulating in the country with regard to the Supreme Court’s determination he calls it “baseless”.

Baseless? I’d rather think not. Prof Peiris refers to “this Bill”. Which Bill is that? The Bill that was gazetted and which the Supreme Court was considering after some 20 petitions were presented to it challenging the Bill in toto or in part.

I may be in error but a quick reading of the determination told me that the Supreme Court pointed to at least 26 clauses or sub- clauses which were inconsistent with the constitution. So the Bill as it stood contained clauses that were in the Supreme Court’s view inconsistent with the constitution.

If that were so then the Bill as it stood could not be passed by a simple majority. One does not have to be a legal scholar to understand some of the views — though some might sound rather technical –expressed by the SC.

Referring to provisions of some clauses (3,6, 68) as inconsistent with Article 76 read with Articles 3 and 4 of the constitution, the SC says they could be “validly passed only with the special majority provided for in Article 84(2) of the constitution and approved by the People at a Referendum by virtue of Article 83”.

Space does not permit me to quote several other observations of the Bench. But suffice it to mention that the Bill that was considered by the SC could not have been passed by a simple majority and Prof. Peiris’s dismissal of public opinion as “misinformation” and baseless, is itself baseless because public perception was founded on the original Bill as gazetted and the views in numerous articles on the issue in the print media and TV talk shows.

Prof Peiris’s confidence as articulated in Parliament was on the basis that the series of amendments prepared by the Government in keeping with the observations of the Court and collated from legal and other opinions expressed by the public that would remove the obstacles in the Bill which would otherwise prevent it being passed by a simple majority

Had the Government not rushed in with amendments via the AG’s Department and bent to the observations of the Supreme Court, the Bill as gazetted would have required a special majority and approval at a referendum.

The Government was wary of facing a referendum, especially with a spreading pandemic, as it was in an unusual haste. Moreover it could not be certain of a 2/3rd majority, as the vote eventually showed. The Government had presented a Bill to satisfy its financial sponsors not to be respectful to the country’s constitution.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)

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