On Being Right about Right and Wrong

HambanthotaPort_RRThe dominance of memes and hearsay over facts and evidence in contemporary Sri Lankan journalism

The Editorial Column in last Sunday’s Observer (presumably written by Lakshman Gunasekara who is listed online as its Editor1) is a piece that professes to analyze our ambient sociopolitical situation and serve as a guide the voter2 in the upcoming General Election.

The Editor begins with this salvo. “On January 8, 2015, Sri Lanka also became known for near-heroic social and political struggles that toppled a bumbling dictator-plunderer who allowed sorcerers and astrologers to define his, and by default, his country’s destiny.”

He goes on to say, “After the narrow shave for the UPFA in retaining the Uva administration, analysts were already doing their psephological analysis and coming to the conclusion that with the disillusionment of the Sinhala rural poor demonstrated in the Uva, any political force that relied solely on that vote bank now ran the risk of losing out. Notwithstanding that political reality, the Rajapaksa regime thought fit – on the advice of their astrologers, not psephologists – to hold presidential polls two years in advance and lost it and, convincingly, at that.

Let us dwell on the essence of these two statements.

  1. MR is a dictator who plundered our nation and,
  2. MR held the presidential election early because his astrologer said so.

Can this Editor back these two claims with some evidence?

After all, these are profound statements to be made by the Editor of one of the nation’s widest selling Sunday newspapers3, which has a powerful influence over the general public.

If these two statements are true, then our Penal Code compels us to act upon them. If they are false, then I’m sure the Elections Commissioner would be compelled to act upon them, in order to uphold the law governing free and fair elections. Remember, election candidates have rights too; they cannot be subject to irresponsible, malicious defamation by news media. There is no attempt by this Editor to frame these aspersions into proper perspective, like for example “it was rumored in some quarters that MR held the election because his astrologer said so”. And there is certainly no evidence put forward by him to support these two statements in his piece.

Perhaps we aught to take example from his singular style of critical thinking, which throws empirical evidence, fair-mindedness and intellectual honesty out the window: and begin paying homage to gossip, rumor and a free casting of aspersions. Perhaps we should already “know” that this Editor is a mere hack of a political party opposing MR’s candidature, and that he is beating the drum of corruption and despotism to pleasure his unscrupulous paymaster.

However let us not stoop to his lowly depths, and simply call a spade a spade. This Editor has no qualms in deviating from the best practices in intellectual judgment and honesty dictated by civilization since the days of the renaissance, such as sighting evidence and dealing with factual statements. It appears that when evidence (such as that accepted in a court of law) is lacking to buttress the propaganda that this Editor’s political allegiances demand, he seems to be fishing out of his own backside political gossip that has been digested by his system. In doing so, he makes a feeble attempt at defending himself by hiding behind phrases such as “Sri Lanka became known as…”

If one were to use internet-age slang as a reaction, one would say WTF??? Doesn’t this person want to talk about facts that can be useful to the voter, or at least share a constructive bit of advise to the political parties involved in the election, in the hope of better shaping our nations future? Is his brain so devoid of ideas or facts that the only weapon he has to support his political view is slander?

Furthermore, does he really think that the wise thing to do at this point in time is to remind the voter that some wisecracker in 1983 called Sri Lanka a “tear drop”? What is the intellectual underpinning behind this type of argument? We can’t find a single nation in the world that hasn’t had its historical share of grief, and all nations have had a “bad name”. Perhaps at the next US presidential election we should remind the American voters of Mark Twain quip “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” Perhaps true in some humorous way, but what purpose does it serve?

We expect more from the Editor of Sri Lanka’s preeminent newspaper. We’d like him to pay some attention to detail, discuss facts and form opinions based on evidence. We’d like him to refrain from the sort of idle talk that one would imagine being indulged by an uneducated, drunken village thug (“Mahatheyo mung horu okkoma” | “Sir, these chaps are all crooks”). Why would we need erudite newspaper editors if that were the standard of their political analysis? One could go to the local pub, and rant about how all journalists are paid hacks of politicians, and save LKR 50/-

Personally, I make no bones about the fact that I was a supporter of MR’s broader national policies. I deeply value the contribution made by MR towards Sri Lanka’s socioeconomic development, and his decisive eradication of terrorism. Sure, there were rumors of corruption during his tenure, which remain completely unsubstantiated to date. There were nepotistic tendencies displayed, which were self-evident4. However, as voters in the upcoming election, what we aught to care about is:

  1. Who is the best person to elect locally, out of the given lot? This is a general election; we cannot vote based on the party leader’s record alone. Besides, we granted more autonomy and administrative capacities to parliament, precisely because we wanted to elect better persons locally.
  2. Which party has the better national policy?
  3. Which party has the stronger leadership team, with a better track record of success in difficult times?

It’s fascinating that this Editor takes offense that MR is leading a general election campaign after one single election defeat. One would have thought that RW, with a handsome record of 29 election defeats5 under his belt, would induce more squeamishness. The fact is though, we should not care either way; what matters is who can do a better job right now.

The MR administration defeated terrorism, built roads and highways, uplifted the image, cleanliness and public works in Colombo, facilitated commercial enterprise directly (through building renovation, telecommunication infrastructure, lower taxation for small businesses), supported farmers through subsidies and increased our agricultural production manifold, built ports and airports (yes, for those who think that the Hambantota harbor is idle, take a look at the cover photo of vehicles on the dock for transshipment), built public works, schools and hospitals in the war affected North and East, and boosted Sri Lanka’s global position to one of the fastest growing economies in the world6. Their achievements are well-documented7. Sure they did some quirky or even disturbing things, like muscling out the Chief Justice (with the backing of the parliamentary majority, note) because her policies were at odds with theirs. Most notably, we hardly ever heard them speak of the previous government during their tenure.

In comparison, the MS administration came in and changed the constitution, reducing the powers of the Executive President, as a “solution” to excesses of government. They cut prices of fuel and some essential commodities. They passed a “freedom of information” bill. They gained bipartisan support for these constitutional amendments. On the flipside, there was a parliamentary COPE committee formally investigating an unprecedented fraud in the Central Bank, allegedly orchestrated by its newly appointed Governor!8, 9 Parliament was dissolved just prior to the release of that important report. They arrested members of opposing political parties for alleged fraudulent practices, but we have no report as yet of their culpability before the eyes of the law. Oh yes, and they spend 100% of their airtime blaming the previous government.

In answer to a question posed to Eran Wickramaratne on the TV program “Wada Pitiya”10, a senior UNP MP and economist, the MP acknowledged that there was not one single development project or investment initiated by the UNP during their recent 7-month coalition government.

We understand that people vote at elections based on widely varying personal experiences and preferences. However, we urge everyone to be cautious of media skullduggery like that promulgated by the Editor of the Observer.

References:

  1. http://srilankabrief.org/2015/02/a-brave-new-state-media-lakshman-gunasekara/
  2. http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2015/07/05/main_Editorial.asp
  3. 175,000 per week plus many online readers: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2001/pix/AdvLoc.asp
  4. Nepotism in former UPFA government. The MR Administration had two of MR’s brothers as cabinet ministers, and a third as his secretary of defense (a non-ministerial public office with extensive power over the defense establishment of the island). This third brother was also put in charge of urban development8. MR openly backed his son’s nomination from the UPFA ticket, as a member of parliament. This MP son of his was also powerfully empowered to campaign on behalf of his the government. 70% of the national 2014 budget was allocated for portfolios or departments managed by the Rajapakse Brothers, in a cabinet of over 100 ministers. MR was instrumental in bringing forward legislation to change the constitution, allowing for his nomination as a presidential candidate for an unprecedented third term. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nepotism
  5. http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2015/02/25/ranil-wickramasinghe-is-the-prime-minister-of-president-maitripala-sirisena-but-not-of-the-people-of-sri-lanka/
  6. http://www.ft.lk/2014/08/18/south-asias-fastest-growing-economy-a-look-at-modern-sri-lanka-with-ambassador-kariyawasam/
  7. http://www.mahinda2015.com/achievements.html
  8. https://rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/prof-wijesinha-wants-next-parliament-to-take-up-cope-report-on-bond-scam/
  9. http://www.dailymirror.lk/78287/governor-intervened-in-scam-jvp
  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oInTZZELJFk

* Title borrowed from Sam Harris’s blog, apologies to Sam.

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One Response to On Being Right about Right and Wrong

  1. Pingback: “Lifeboat diplomacy” – a rejoinder to Sam Harris, suggesting America aught to abandon the “rogue nation” doctrine, and mediate in conflict exercising social intelligence and with foresight of outcomes | iZombi

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