Angry President tells jeering crowd to leave published in the Sunday Times today is a story based on reportage that first appeared on two sites on the web, Lanka Truth and Lanka News Web.
The version on Lanka Truth, published on 3 April, attributed contentious comments, outrageously derogatory towards the Tamil community, to the President in a rally held in Jaffna on 1st April. Two audio (MP3) files were embedded in this story. One in which the President says in Sinhala, translated to English on the site, â€œI am also a Sinhalese just like you, but I will speak only in Tamil, and if you cannot understand, then leave the venue”
and the other, again as translated on the site, where he says â€œsince you have tried to interrupt me I will continue to speak in Tamil.”
The story on Lanka News Web was also published on 3 April. The original URL of the story on the site can also be accessed via a proxy in Sri Lanka, as it is blocked by many ISPs in Sri Lanka. This story attributes the comments of the President to a UPFA rally at the Duraiappa Stadium held on 1st April. The story links to a YouTube ‘video’, which is nothing more than a still image with a soundtrack basically the same as the two audio files embedded in the Lanka Truth website. The YouTube video can be accessed here and at the time of writing has been viewed around 8,250 times.
Groundviews first tweeted about this speech after we received an email pointing to the article on Lanka Truth. We flagged what was prima facie an outrageous example of racism and insensitivity by the Executive, and bizarrely so, given the context of the upcoming parliamentary elections, the ostensible location the speech was given in and the community to which the comments were directed towards. We also pointed out the harm these comments had towards post-war reconciliation especially in the North.
At the same time, we reached out via email to our regular readers and contributors to verify the story. Aacharya, a regular contributor to Groundviews, now based in Jaffna, noted that the story had received no mention at all, at the time, in the Tamil media. Two subscribers to our Twitter feed, @dumindaxsb and @naveenmadhawa also expressed their doubts over the veracity of the speech, to which we responded by noting that the Presidential Secretariat would be bound to respond to the story if it was untrue, and that silence could be interpreted as a tacit admission of veracity. In the meanwhile, given reports Groundviews received confirming that no local Tamil, Sinhala or English media had covered the story, we flagged that the content may be fabricated.
We then received feedback from international media present at the venues the President spoke at in Jaffna that their translators had not alerted them to contentious segments of the speech that matched the web reports. Upon subsequent checking after our request to validate the story went out, they noted that no such comments had been uttered by the President. We duly noted this in our Twitter feed, and responded to both @naveenmadhawa and @dumindaxsb by noting that it was madness to put these stories up in the first place. @naveenmadhawa in fact claimed he had the full DVD of the contentious speech which we encouraged him to release publicly in order to set the record straight.
In the meanwhile, we told @Binku, another follower of our Twitter feed who was given to believe the recordings, that blatant falsehoods don’t help in promoting reform and that one must be the change one wants to see.
It is in this context that the Sunday Times story is published. It attributes the same comments noted on the Lanka Truth and Lanka News Web sites to the President at a rally in Vavuniya, and suggests that supporters of UPFA candidate P. Sumathipala were involved in the jeering.
One assumes the Sunday Times published this story after checking facts, which in turn then gives credence to the web reports even though they got the location of the speech wrong. The Sunday Times notes that though it was a multi-ethnic crowd the President addressed, it was the Sinhalese who had jeered. This is not mentioned in either the Lanka Truth or Lanka News Web stories. The Lanka News Web article in fact states quite the opposite, mentioning that it was the Tamils in the audience who couldn’t comprehend what the President was saying, and thus started to jeer.
The concerns over, inter alia, racism and insensitivity are anchored to which community these comments were directed towards. If it was, as the Sunday Times notes, directed towards the Sinhalese in the audience, the President must actually be commended for his steadfastness to continue to speak, as best he can, in a language he is clearly still learning and symbolically, vital to be seen and heard speaking. If on the other hand these comments were directed towards the Tamils in the audience, and was instigated by their jeering, it does raise very serious questions over the President’s ability and willingness to be a symbol of reconciliation and statesmanship vital in post-war Sri Lanka.
That Lanka News Web cannot be accessed via many ISPs in Sri Lanka can be traced back to contested reports against the Rajapaksa’s that were published on the site. Lanka Truth is also widely seen to be partial to the JVP, hardly friends of the Rajapaksa regime. On balance then, the version of the comments attributed to the President appearing on the Sunday Times is what we can best believe.
The story on this story is as interesting as the comments attributed to the President. On the one hand, it suggests that some websites will, shamefully, inaccurately source and spin content to run down the Rajapaksa administration, which is about as bad and myopic as the administration’s own spin and propaganda. On the other hand, it also suggests that spin and propaganda from any party is increasingly difficult to sustain and very quickly exposed, given, in addition to mainstream media’s investigative journalism, models of crowd-sourcing able to quickly check the validity of information new media initiatives such as Groundviews are anchored to and held in check by.