The Customs raid on Stassen House on September 3 has clearly precipitated a pressure cooker atmosphere in the corridors of power.
Forty One (41) files have been taken into the custody of the Customs, a rich and influential Managing Director with access to the President of this country has reacted bitterly against the raid, and in what could be on the face of it, a tit-for-tat retaliatory move, the CID has conducted a raid on the Customs this week alleging fraud on the part of the Customs.
Suddenly, the hunters have become the hunted.The Customs officers who undertook the raid on that afternoon of Wednesday, September 3 have virtually gone underground.
They told The Sunday Times SPECIAL ASSIGNMENTS team that they believed that their telephones were being tapped, their movements followed, and in fact, their very lives in jeopardy.
Customs officials maintained that there was no clear evidence that the Government was ordering a cover-up.But, they said , all the circumstantial evidence points to that, simply by the fact that had it been otherwise, say a company that was not in favour of the Government, the investigations would have been handled quite the opposite.
This very stand that the Government has adopted, one of them told us, only serves to demoralize law enforcing officers from carrying out their duties.After all, it is the Government which will lose much needed revenue he said.
Another senior Customs official said due to political pressure, the Customs Department is being prevented from following normal procedure.
In 1995 apparently, four Customs officials were dismissed from service after an inquiry was conducted, and they were found guilty of being in collusion with a businessman.defrauding the country for some millions of rupees.
The CID has pointed this out to show that the hands of some Customs men are not clean either.
Director General of Customs, S.M.J.Senaratne was contacted by us with a little difficulty over the weekend.
We asked him how the probe into Stassens was going.We had been told by some of those who had studied them, that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute those responsible.
The documents in the possession of The Sunday Times could point to a prima facie case against Stassen House and as we suggested in our last issue (September 21), Stassen House will have to come up with a strong defence to get out of its present mess. However, the investigation is still proceeding.
Mr. Senaratne told us, very assertively, that he is not the kind of public servant who will wither at political pressure, or any other pressure.
But he told us In the name of national interest, dont hamper the investigation Now, we are not quite sure what he meant by this, the call on his cellular got cut off in the midst of the interview.We can blame the low battery for that.
D.Harry Stassen Jayawardane, Managing Director of Stassen Group of Companies, Chairman of Airlanka, owner or co-owner of Lanka Milk Foods, Distilleries Company, Hatton National Bank and member of the Defence Ministry appointed Reserve Affairs Council among other posts was at the eye of the storm.
A storm in a tea cup he might very well say.But when we at the SPECIAL ASSIGNMENTS team called him up on Thursday and requested an interview for the record, there was no come- back .
There had been some printers devils in The Sunday Times expose last week on the Customs raid on Stassen House.
These related to:
a) On the Happy Cow cheese order for 1997 the total amount and the total sum of orders differ.
b) The value of the Tulip brand of imports from Denmark was Rs. 2.3 million and not Rs. 3.2 million.
c) And in the Tulip brand Proforma for October 8, 1996 the duty payable should be in rupees and not in US dollars.
Note: These discrepancies arose in converting the US dollars into SL rupees but it does not detract from the gist of the story that the imports, on the face of it, appear to be under-invoiced.
Fr Balasuriya may well be wrongly and unjustly excommunicated, as it has not been clearly established that he fulfils the criteria to qualify as a heretic, said Dr Philip Kennedy lecturing at Oxford University. The Australian Dominican theologian at Blackfriars was speaking on the fate of Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka.
Dr. Kennedy said that the standards of justice and practices of mercy are much higher and more exacting in secular democratic states than within the uppermost administration of the Catholic Church. Fr Balasuriya is neither an international celebrity nor an entertainment superstar.
He is certainly not one of the 20th centurys lionised Catholic theolgians like Rahner, Chenu, Von Balthasar or Gutierrez. He is hardly an intellectually totemic figure for our era like Einstein, Wittgenstein, Hubble or Derrida. So why talk of him in the University of Oxford?
Dr Kennedy explained that the reason was simple, serious and ominous. Tissa Balasuriya is the first Catholic theologian to be excommunicated as a heretic since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). As such his fate should not be passed unnoticed either humanly or theologically.
The lecturer felt that the Balasuriya excommunication was less the result of a wilfully sustained disavowal of Catholic faith and much more the consequence of the priests disapproval of Pope John Pauls old fashioned style of theology.
He said Fr Balasuriya was never allowed to defend himself juridically with legal counsel before he received the penatly of excommunication. His accusers have been his judges and punishers. No third party has been able to arbitrate or defend him.
Dr Philip Kennedy a brilliant Dominican Priest is well known in academia in Oxford University for his lectures and writings and especially for his book The Knowability of God in the Theology of Edward Schillebeeckx (1993). His views on Fr Balasuriya also appeared in the Universitys Allen Review. He says: There are clear signs in Fr Balasuriyas writing that he has not demonstrated prolonged unwillingness to correct those views which are contested by his accusers. One who openly consents to correcting ones work may never be legitimately called a heretic.
The lecturer feels that the excommunication has come because of the priests refusal to practise theology in the mode of a neo-scholastic dogmatics.
Dr Kennedy said that the weakness of the Vatican case against Fr Balasuriya is further disclosed in its accusation that he denies the necessity of baptism for salvation. Well so did Vatican 2s Dogmatic Constitution of the Church which taught that anyone who sincerely seeks God can be saved.
Referring to Cardinal Ratzingers Excommunication notification which wanted Fr Balasuriyas unconditioned adherence to the Magisterium, Dr Kennedy argued that never before in Catholic history has all authoritative teaching been reserved to a Pope and his fellow bishops. Often in the past Popes have claimed such a unique power, but they have never been uncontested.
The current Bishop of Rome, he said, installs and fires all bishops instead of allowing local communities to elect them. Now that Vatican 2s doctrine of Collegiality has miscarried, it is easy to forget what an extremely and doctrinally misleading practice the contemporary invocation of magisterium is doing today.
Dr Kennedy said that it is now possible for the Holy See to arrogate the supreme teaching authority to itself and bishops in communication with it. The theologians were left aside.
He observed: The current doctrinal power of the Papacy is totally without historical precedent in the 20th century history of Catholicism. There will only be one style of theology that has a Greek, Latin and European intellectual and cultural provenance. It seeks to impress that the Church and its teachings are always and everywhere the same. Fr Balasuriya is now victimised as an opponent of the Emperor cult rather than as an adversary of the Catholic Faith.
Dr Kennedy also argued that Fr Balasuriyas accusers have failed to demonstrate that he is doctrinally contumacious or stubborn. The priest is always willing to engage his accusers in critical discussion.
Here is a man probing, seeking and exploring. To excommunicate him is to uphold a premodern, monocultural, imperialistic theology that has little to say to the democratic, feminist, post modern, pluricultural techno society increasingly characterising our planet.
The lecturer justified Fr Balasuriyas refusal to sign the Profession of Faith drawn specially for him by Cardinal Ratzinger. He said that it was not within the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith definitively to formulate Cathloic belief simply because the Congregation is not doctrinally superior to a general council of Bishops.
Dr Kennedy bemoaned that Sovereign Pontiffs have forgotten to build bridges. Fr Balasuriya was excommunicated by the Pope as Sovereign Pontiff So now the Roman Mariologist Pontiff has decided to distance himself from the Asian Mariologist Balasuriya rather than erect a bridge towards him. How resolutely forgotten is Pope John XXIII and his own bridge building exercise of Vatican 2 !
British newspa per editors last week considered tougher privacy guidelines recommended by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in the continuing backlash over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales late last month. The guidelines relating primarily to activities of the paparazzi and protection of children against intrusive reporting is expected to herald a pretty dramatic package of improvements to the newspaper industrys code of practice according to Lord Wakeham, chairman of the PCC.
Comparison between the Sri Lankan situation and that which prevails in Britain is of course futile. In the first instance we have none of the flagrantly violative abusing of the private lives of public figures that takes place as a matter of course there. The media does not dog the footsteps of our politicians or our public figures and record what they are up to in their personal lives.
That being said, it has also to be added that in the present climate of media law reform in the country, some thought ought to be given as to how a via media could be achieved in balancing the right to privacy against the right to free speech. That such a balance is not a reality at present is precisely the reason why governments in power over-react to each and every comment tossed in their direction and resort to the Penal Code to teach these people a lesson.
This results not only in the ridiculing of the penal laws of the country which are only meant for grave and heinous crimes, but also pushes the media into a fiercely antagonistic position vis a vis the Government, a situation no sane Government would really like. There is then this Us Vs Them mentality coming into play, with the players satisfied with only a fight unto the death.
Perhaps it is high time that the cause was not perceived only as of the journalists, by the journalists and for the journalists. The cause should rather be that of the fostering of a climate of responsible and responsive reportage which holds public figures to account for whatever actions that reflect on their public position. An utopian vision, one would agree, but there is no harm in striving for it. The trick would appear to lie in providing safety valves, if necessary by law. The right to reply is one such mechanism that would come up for consideration in due course by the Parliamentary Select Committee that has been appointed to look into questions of media freedom. Based on changes proposed by the R.K.W. Goonesekere committee on reform of freedom of speech laws, it suggests that a person or institution that is aggrieved by publication of factually incorrect statements in the media should have the right to refute those reports. Such a reply should be confined only to the challenged version of the facts and should not be longer than is necessary to correct the alleged inaccuracy. The committee has pointed out that it is aware that readers are given this right by the Code of Communication Ethics that Sri Lankan journalists are obliged to follow. However, it has taken the view that provision by law of a right of reply would be conducive to a greater sense of responsibility in the exercise of freedom of speech.
By the same reasoning, the need for carefully crafted privacy rights is also necessary. That such rights are part of the dialogue on free speech has been long established in international human rights law. The judiciary is expected to balance the two rights, and in the words of the European Court where there is much uncertainty as to how to achieve this balance, the courts should accord greater weight to the press role as a public watchdog.
While to a certain extent outdated laws do act as obstacles to progress, it is not for nothing that it is said that a judge is a king in his own court. A conservative judge can throw away even the most progressive of laws, and an enlightened judge can transform even the most obsolete law. It has been argued in recent national discussions on the media that the right to privacy will react against media freedom to comment on matters of public interest. Taking this argument to somewhat incorrect lengths, it has been commented that the proposed right to privacy in the new chapter on fundamental rights proposed by Justice Minister G.L. Peiris is dangerous to the media. The right states that every person has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence and communications and shall not be subject to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of the right other than such restrictions prescribed by law as are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public order or national economy or the protection of public health or morality or for securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others.
Framers of the constitutional draft article have taken the wording from the European Commission on Human Rights, and the manner in which the European Court has interpreted the right will no doubt be looked at if the proposed privacy right does become law. The European Court has laid down guidelines concerning the extent to which the State may interfere with the private life of its citizens. Among the guidelines laid down are warnings that disclosure to or improper discovery by a third person of facts relating to a individuals physical condition, health or personality can be permitted only in the interests of preventing crime and the outlawing of laws that make homosexual conduct between consenting adults an offence. No case involving the extent to which the media might intrude on a persons privacy has been considered by the Court.
Once the proposed right becomes part of our laws, it will be the Government who would be held to account, as all fundamental right actions are against the Government and those institutions associated with the Government. There is no way in which this right could be said to threaten the media. If implemented, the right could however serve to define the concept of privacy in a manner that would indirectly affect issues involving free speech.
Confusing nonetheless, it is encouraging that debate continues to rage over the issues in focus.
xWhat remains to be emphasized is that if the current push for substantive media law reform is successful, certain rights such as the right to reply that would benefit the readers of the newspapers as well as its writers would come into being. Highlighting of these rights might be useful in a context where the media itself has also to be made aware of the need for such changes.
In the weekend when the quivering lower lip replaced the stiff upper lip in Britain, even the media basher Earl Spencer failed to see it. There was a more insidious media influence on the events following the tragic death of Princess Diana than on the events leading up to it.
The Fayeds and the Windsors dealt with their tragedies in different ways. Mohammed Al Fayed released videos with a commentary, and television viewers around the world, quite used to digesting news in well-packaged capsules, swallowed another dose.
The evidence was inconclusive, but Al Fayeds public relations team had obviously read the right manuals. As Michael Bland, a crisis management consultant wrote, The moment a crisis strikes there is a flashpoint, and from that moment an information vacuum exists. If there is no information, the vacuum will be filled with any nonsense that comes along. The media may not have created all the nonsense, but they gave it publicity.
Across the Channel, the media which had the public wrath descend upon them, deflected that wrath. It was so cleverly done, so well orchestrated that Britain was unaware that it was being manipulated.
Was the media reflecting the national mood or directing it? The note of triumph in a newspaper was unmistakable. The Royal family used to tell us what to do, wrote the Express. Now we tell them what to do.
If you believed the media, especially television, Dianas death canonised her. The Queen was being punished for not seeing the newfound halo over the Princesss head. If the cry Speak to us maam was tacky in the extreme, that was topped later by a pop star singing a re-worked song at a church funeral. Surely the Princess deserved at least an original composition!
But this was a media circus. Elton Johns Candle In the Wind 1997 is set to top the charts. This is not to question the genuineness of the emotion, only the vulgarity of its expression in a church. There is greater dignity in silence - if only the Queen had stuck to it.
When a 36 year old woman who is attractive, newsworthy, and seen as a rebel has her life abruptly cut short, it is undoubtedly a tragedy. From believing that life is unfair to picking on the elements that make it so is but a step.
The blame was telescoped backwards: the drunken driver, the paparazzi, Prince Charles, Queen .. and so on. The simple theory - it was an accident - is rejected for its very simplicity. The tragedy of Dianas death is not that there was no cause, but that there were too many, and you picked the one you wanted based on your prejudices.
Where did the media get the idea they were talking for the nation? Polls following the funeral have shown that the majority of Britons is still for the monarchy. The tabloids selective amnesia (temporarily forgetting just how much they are in the forefront of the paparazzi style of functioning to take time out to click their tongues at the French paparazzi), is matched only by their selective survey-taking.
In a TV programme Vinod Mehta, the president of Indias Editors Guild, and a man who has published uncomfortable stories and pictures, provided an honest answer: I dont know.
When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Madras, I was with the Indian Express newspaper there, and we had to take a decision on whether or not to run the picture of the former prime minister lying dead following a bomb blast.
There were powerful arguments on both sides of the debate: the publics right to know versus the familys right to privacy; good taste versus the need to show up the horrors of a criminal act, but in the end I think the argument that won was, We have the pictures, the others dont. And that is usually the guiding principle. The sanctimonious are simply those who couldnt lay their hands on the photograph.
Quite the remarkable feature of the media coverage of the death and the funeral has been the reaction of the people, and both the number and the spontaneity of the crowd which packed the streets. They would have come anyway, with or without the media. Still on occasion some of the crowd did give the impression that their existence has somehow been validated by the TV cameras. In fact many interviewed spoke in quotable quotes.
Ironically, the cameras kept flashing as ordinary people clicked pictures of the passing cortege. The symbolism is inescapable. As The Independent asked the following day, Would you take photos of your own mothers funeral?
The death of the Princess has shown up the weaknesses in many institutions, not the least, the Royalty and the media. Of the two, Royalty, with all its stuffiness, tradition and adherence to the past is the more likely to change than the modern, forward-looking media. And there is a lesson in that.
-Suresh Menon of Gulf News
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