Shooting the messenger | Sunday Observer

Shooting the messenger

Maybe it is because this is the World Cup season in football, but political parties are scoring spectacular ‘own goals’ right now, as their stalwarts grapple with the prospect of facing elections.

First, there was the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s Dayasiri Jayasekera trying to convince us that he was not aware how a company linked to the Central Bank bond scam paid him a million rupees for his election campaign.

There was the United National Party’s Sujeewa Senasinghe trying to explain how he came to receive three million rupees which was supposedly paid for his campaign expenses but it turned out that the funds were received after the election!

Now we have one of the ‘big fish’, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa trying to explain the contents of an article in the prestigious New York Times which claims that he borrowed money from China on not so generous terms landing the country in a ‘debt trap’, while receiving Chinese funds for his 2015 reelection campaign.

It is not that we would accept anything and everything published in an overseas newspaper just because it happened to be a prestigious publication such as the New York Times. In fact, media outlets in the western world are notorious for their jaundiced views on developing countries such as ours and utter frequent falsehoods, make generalisations and are usually condescending towards what they consider to be “poorer” nations.

However, this particular article makes for interesting reading. Titled ‘How China got Sri Lanka to cough up a port’, it provides figures to back up its claims, names the banks involved and includes a breakdown of what the campaign money was supposed to be spent on. The articles claims it has documents to substantiate its allegations. Two Sri Lankan journalists are cited as having contributed to the article.

It is the reaction of the Rajapaksas that is most interesting. It has been one of ‘shoot the messenger’. Instead of rebutting the claims made in the article, Joint Opposition (JO) parliamentarians held a press conference and berated the Sri Lankan journalists who were acknowledged in the article, claiming that it was hatchet job on behalf of the Government. They even paraded photographs of one of the journalists.

This was followed by a campaign on social media against the journalists which attacked their families. This campaign appeared to have the blessings of parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa who reposted claims that the authors of the expose had been paid to write the article by the Government. Even if the memories of Sri Lankan voters are sensationally short, they will still remember that journalism was not a safe occupation in the Rajapaksa era. That is why the names of Lasantha Wickremetunga, Prageeth Ekneligoda and Keith Noyahr- to name a few- have become household names.

Therefore, the naming and shaming of two journalists associated with the article is tantamount to intimidation, especially when it emanates from the Rajapaksa camp.

Now there is a war of words between the Rajapaksas, Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and others in the Government about media freedom. This is where the Rajapaksas’ slip is showing.

If, as the JO and Mahinda Rajapaksa claim, the article is false, then it must also follow that it is defamatory. If that is indeed the case, Rajapaksa being a lawyer by profession must surely know what he must do next. He should contact the newspaper with evidence that the article is inaccurate, demand a correction and if that is not forthcoming, sue for compensation. Instead, the JO has chosen to go about slandering local journalists who were reportedly associated with the article.

In fact, even the New York Times has said as much. Michael Slackman, the international editor for The Times maintains that the article was rigorously reported and accurate. “If Mr. Rajapaksa takes issue with Times reporting, we have encouraged him to contact senior editors at The New York Times rather than intimidating Sri Lankan journalists,” Slackman said.

“It is unacceptable for journalists to be intimidated in this way. This action appears intended to silence critics and curb press freedoms, and ultimately deprive Sri Lankans of information in the public interest” he points out.

For the record, Mahinda Rajapaksa did issue a statement in response to the New York Times article. In that, Rajapaksa counters the argument that the Hambantota port is a failure. Rajapaksa did say that “No contribution was made by China Harbour Co to my 2015 presidential election campaign” and accuses the New York Times of being “intentionally vague about who had given this money and who had received it,” but he remains silent on the specific amounts mentioned in the article.

This is a classic case where the defence is worse than the offence. If anything, it demonstrates that the JO and its leading stalwarts, although they are now in the opposition, have yet to get rid of the intimidatory mindset they acquired when they were in power for ten years. They still believe that might is right and behave as if the law of the land does not apply to them.

If they reflect on the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2015, they will realise that Rajapaksa lost not because the majority of voters believed that Maithripala Sirisena would be a cleverer President and a more consummate leader.

He lost because the majority of voters strongly felt that they didn’t wish to live in a country being run like an oligarchy where the only way to get by would be to pledge allegiance to the Rajapaksas and all dissent was in danger of being snuffed out either by judicial or extra judicial means.

If the vulgar reaction to the New York Times article is anything to go by, it seems as if two election defeats and three and a half years has taught the JO and the Rajapaksa camp nothing, probably because, buoyed by their local government election victory they now feel that come 2020, the Government will be theirs again.

Sri Lankan voters would have to be masochistic to agree with them.