Colombo, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Protection from thought: The Economist and National Security in Sri Lanka

In what may be explained as an utterly fatuous action in a country that apparently has no official policy on censorship – but is plagued by the arbitrary regulation and control of online content as well as print media – Customs officials have detained two issues of the Economist this year. In addition, reports indicate that several other issues of the Economist have been withheld by Customs, including two issues published in May of 2009. Similarly, in July of 2009, The Economist was withheld at Customs once again for an article, titled Victory’s rotten fruits, that commented on the distasteful triumphalism that followed the end of war in May 2009. A news report last month by the Sunday Times that obtained a statement from Lakshman Hulugalle, the Director General of the Media Centre for National Security, provides a lacklustre exposition of why foreign publications may be censored in the future:

Asked what the government policy was in detaining foreign publications, Mr. Hulugalle said if they were “harmful to national security”, they would be disallowed.

The application of the rationale for censorship in Sri Lanka is as misguided as the ad hoc policy in place at Customs with no clear guidelines or capacity to determine what type of content might ‘legitimately’ undermine ‘national security.’ It is discernible to any reader familiar with the articles in question that the censorship of the magazine is explicitly related to the unfortunate dexterity of heavily politicised institutions of the state to distort dissent as an act of disloyalty and further justify their irrationality with a tiresome jingoistic diatribe. The latter has perniciously marked out the acceptable and unacceptable in expression, publication, circulation and the access to information. As an institution, Customs falls under the authority of the Ministry of Finance – one of the numerous portfolios under President Rajapakse and that relation itself may be an explanation for the sporadic displays of loyalty through censorship.

However, the content of the most recent articles that have been withheld are far from a revelation and could hardly be determined as being so overwhelmingly controversial that it might undermine the security of the nation and hence warrant restriction. If these articles have any value, it is that their content reflects a critical stand against the politics and policies of the incumbent government. For the purpose of highlighting the doltish attitude by the apparatchiks of the government towards the value of dissent, a recapitulation of the most significant sections of the content in these articles would have significant heuristic value for further debate on the acceptable, if not pragmatic, limits of censorship. In ‘Rebuilding, at a cost’ the Economist notes,

‘The authorities say that land will be dished out through open tenders. But local leaders fear plots will instead be handed to henchmen of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, most of whom come from the Sinhala-dominated south. Demands for preferential treatment for the inhabitants of Trincomalee, whether Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim, may fall on deaf ears…A soldier on the road to Mutur says government officials visit regularly, adding disgustedly that he is forced to salute the likes of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, a former LTTE leader who is now deputy minister of resettlement, whereas “war heroes” like the former army commander, Sarath Fonseka, languish in jail…A wider crackdown against the opposition seems to be under way. Also on August 13th two MPs from Mr Fonseka’s Democratic National Alliance were arrested during what they called a “pro-democracy” protest. Police wielding batons and firing tear gas charged the demonstrators. The country may be developing after the war, but democracy still looks frail.’

Following the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, last week’s issue of the Economist highlighted in an article titled ‘Eighteenth time unlucky’ that,

‘Indeed, whatever problems Sri Lanka’s political system suffers from, the weakness of the presidency, which is already directly responsible for over 90 institutions, is not one of them. Quite the contrary: Mr Rajapaksa himself, before he tasted its benefits first-hand, used to campaign for the abolition of the executive presidency… Such important changes should have been put to a referendum. Mr Rajapaksa might well have won one. But a campaign would at least have thrown the issues open to public debate and scrutiny…That he has preferred to put the consolidation of his family’s power ahead of a sorely needed national reconciliation with an aggrieved Tamil minority is a decision Sri Lanka will repent at leisure.

Emphasis ours. Perhaps after carefully reading every single article in every single copy of the Economist, Customs have now released the issue.

If our patriotic policy-makers persist with the principle of ‘national security’ as a justification for the proscription of the content above, then it is worth questioning both their judgment and intelligence with reference to two specific points. Firstly, it is incomprehensible that the content covered by the article on the Eighteenth Amendment can undermine national security, given that the verbal jousts in parliament, reportage by citizen and mainstream media have exhaustively covered similar criticisms and opposition to the bill by intellectuals, lawyers, journalists, independent analysts and political parties. In addition, the article on the perils of post-war development, with its relatively mild references to nepotism and the stifling of the Opposition, hardly poses any sort of threat and it would be sophomoric to argue that the content could possibly cause insecurity.

Secondly and in congruence with the latter point, the demographic that actually read the Economist in Sri Lanka is, unfortunately, significantly small and further, even if the Economist print edition is consistently detained by Customs in the future, it will still be accessible on the web, emailed around, posted on blogs, linked to on other websites and printed in other mainstream newspapers. The wider implication in the continuation of this bootless and inane policy would be the resulting erosion of public trust in the institutions of the state, especially when responsible and pragmatic policy-making appears to be so demanding that it ceases to exist.

It follows that while holding up issues of the Economist at Customs does nothing at all to impede the dissemination of the magazine’s engaging content amongst subscribers in Sri Lanka, it does have two unintended consequences for the Rajapakse regime. One, as a consequence of censoring a specific issue, it becomes far more popular than it would have had its sale and dissemination in print form been allowed in the country. Secondly, every instance a copy is banned, domestic and international scrutiny on post-war censorship in Sri Lanka gets a vital boost.

It is quite clear that the remnants of an arbitrary and inchoate war-time policy on censorship continues to exist and is derived, if not complemented, from the occasional inability of the government to tolerate dissenting views. In this specific case of censorship it appears that officials and the apparatchiks of the government have misinterpreted dissent towards the government as an attack on national security or worse, they may zealously believe that any dissent towards the government might actually undermine the security of the nation. In any case, following a miraculous improvement in comprehension on the part of all authorities concerned in this matter, inquiries need to be made regarding the utility of enforcing an unofficial and what is ultimately an ineffective policy with clear partisan interests; the lack of any acceptable reason provided by officials for withholding the Economist; and the guidelines, if any exist, that have been provided to the Customs officers. Unfortunately, in the hopeless anticipation of a response from the grand arbiter, it is entirely certain that we might have to endure an inordinate delay for a response, the insult of a lack of response and the prolific ability of authorities to feign ignorance.

For a full list of articles on Sri Lanka published on the Economist, click here.

  • TT

    An outrageous and stupid decision. Now people will actively seek this paricular article! That’s how humans behave and it cannot be stopped. When this appeared in the Economist, not many cared but now it will be in demand.

  • Thiruvananthapuram

    The more issues of Economist that are banned in Sri Lanka(including the present one) the more its President-for-life has reason to fear for his own actions. Thus the recent news that Rajapaksa had to get personal assurances from SG Ban himself about his security (he is allegedly a war criminal ) while in the US in connection with the upcoming UN General Assembly session may be quite indicative of his own concerns as a result of his own misdoings. It is reminiscent of the interogation that his brother Gota and former Army commander Sarath Fonseka, now in dire straits, had to undergo supposedly in connection with suspected end-of-war crimes against humanity when they were last in the US. Both are either US citizen or Green Card holder respectively. Further an NGO has sought the views of the Supreme Court judges in the US about culpability and interrogabilty of President Rajapakse in connection with war crimes may have been the prompt for his telephone call to SG Ban. You can run away from culpability for mass crimes some of the time but not all of the time as Milosovic and his partners in crime from Serbia found to their dismay.

  • niranjan

    An excellent article. Well said Groundviews.

    There is little rationality in this Government. The few who are intelligent and rational on the side of the Government have decided to keep silent. Otherwise they will lose their jobs.

    Can Groundviews tell me on what grounds the UNP poster printed was arrested recently?
    Was it not another case of irrationality on the part of the Government?

  • Supan

    he “last nail in the coffin of democracy” the constitutional reforms enabling Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa to seek a third term.

    This could pave way for a military rule in the Sri Lanka

    Sri Lanka government was opening “the door for a military coup in the country by introducing the 18th Amendment to the constitution”

    The bill that will enable the President to seek a third term in office is passed by Parliament late tonight, where the ruling coalition has a two-thirds majority.

    Whenever the bill is passed, that will be a “dark day for democracy”.

  • Supan

    Sri Lankans who do not form part of the cabal knew of the draft’s final content only a couple of weeks ago. Rajapkse went through the motions of seeking dialogue with the opposition, but never revealed his cards. That was part and parcel of the Rajapakse strategy:

    (a) keep everyone guessing as to the content; (b) bribe MPs to crossover by offering even more ministerial portfolios (merits an entry in the Guinness Book); (c) get an urgent supreme court ruling and then rush it through parliament before we Sri Lankans realise what hit us or the crossover MPs get cold feet(more likely). So, I’d say that the Economist got it right.

    You refer to the “undemocratic 17th amendment”; but conveniently omit that it was in fact a UFPA govt (of which Rajapkse was a minister) that obtained consensus and passed it through parliament. How did they obtain such rare cross-party consensus for legislation that you term undemocratic? And such a stark contrast to the rush job on the 18th. The central feature of the 17th was aimed at guaranteeing a level playing field concerning the conduct of fair elections (a near impossible task with Rajapakse) and Police appointments. The untrammelled presidential power that Rajapakse now enjoys is exactly the scenario that would make any fair election impossible. There are no effective checks and balances. So, no exaggeration here; democracy cannot survive without such attributes, although Cuba, North Korea and Burma might disagree vehemently on that point.

    As to your: “not to speak of catholics excluded monarchy in uk which appoints an offspring of the most bloody barbaric family in history to head it automatically. “
    What a gem! I have no idea what this has to do with democracy, but get the feeling such a comment (does outside Pyongang write such

  • Arul

    It’s a tragedy that the Brothers have channeled all the country’sresources and effort into entrenching themselves in power (shades of Kim JongIl and his clan).

    Rajapkse’s adroit manipulation of our venal politicianswould have been the envy of Machiavelli: he certainly knows to hit the sweetspot when it comes to offering ministerial carrots to turncoat MPs. At thisrate, he’ll soon have to set up a “Ministry for invention of MinisterialPortfolios”. Really, don’t his urbane western-educated advisors like GL,Rajiva, Palitha etc. cringe when they have to invent portfolios that soundlike the result of word games?

    On the other hand, those who fall out of favour can have no doubt that they’ll get the Fonseka treatment. Rajapkse, just like any “honourable” politician,has no qualms about setting up a nepotistic idyll, surrounded by courtiers like Mervyn Silva (that learned exponent ofthe “Sri Lankan Rope Trick”) who claims that people end up tied to trees,miraculously. Perhaps this could be just the sort of good governance that these “paragons of virtue” have in mind for us?

  • sinhala_voice

    IF the way the 18th Amendment was passed is NOT GOOD WHAT ABOUT the 13th Amendment ?

    The 13th Amendment was never put to a REFERENDUM . Hast it ?

    The 13th Amendent was NEVER DRAFTED by a Sri Lankan ? True or false ???

    The 13th Amendment is as complicated as the WHOLE Sri Lankan constitution.

    So if you complain about the 18th Amendment complain about the 13th Amendment too….This WAS ALSO NON-DEMOCRATIC.

  • @sinhala_voice said,

    Don’t hold your breath. Await the 19th Amendment where the name of the country will be re-named as Sri Rajapakistan!

  • George Bernard Shaw once said, “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.” One is also reminded of words of the 19th century poet Heinrich Heine who said, “Whenever books are burnt, men also, in the end are burnt.”

    The Government of Sri Lanka today is only the latest in a long line of governments worldwide who have tried to snuff out unpalatable ideas and comments by abducting, intimidating, beating and killing its journalists. Names such as Lasantha Wickramatunga, J.S.Tissainayagam and Pradeep Eknaligoda come to mind, to name just a few.

    The first recorded victim of censorship was Socrates who, in 399 BC was forced to drink poison for ‘denying the gods and introducing new divinities.’ In China, in 213 BC, Emperor Shih Huang-Ti had all writing not pertaining to agriculture or medicine burnt. His target: Confucius’ thoughts. Present day China is no better. The Rajapaksa regime today follows the examples of countries like China, Libiya, Myanmar, Iran and Zimbabwe. We are now on the road to becoming like North Korea! One of the few countries our dear leader has not visited yet!

    During the last century, it was the communists who most systematically censored books and hounded their authors. Writers in every communist country from East Germany to Vietnam were forced into concentration camps. Boris Pasternak, Joseph Brodsky, Milan Kundera, Czeslaw Milosz and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were just a few. Hitler’s Germany burnt the books of Jewish authors and liberals, exterminating thousands in their notorious gas chambers and forcing others to flee. In Mahinda’s Sri Lanka, over 14 journalist’s, the majority of them Tamils have been killed in the past few years. Many more journalists’ have been abducted, beaten and intimidated to keep them from writing the truth.

    Sometime back the Government blocked access to the Tamilnet and Lankanewsweb, but what the Government does not understand is that with the advance of technology, censorship has become obsolete. The truth is only a click away. All you need to do to read the Tamilnet or Lankanewsweb is to go online and go through a proxy site. The same goes for ‘The Economist.’
    In today’s day and age it is no longer possible to stop the message or the truth getting out by killing or imprisoning the messenger. That is why the censorship during the ‘Humanitarian’ operation was a total failure.

    It won’t be too long before a 19th Amendment is enacted re-naming the country as “The Utopian Paradise of Sri Rajapakistan.’

  • cassandra

    Banning the Economist is absoluely silly. You don’t need a foreign magazine to tell Sri Lankans what they already know; if anything, what the Economist has to say is news only to those outside the island. And I guess the publishers and the SL agent for the magaizine won’t complain about the unsolicited and free publicity they have got; now there will be new demad for the publication!

    ‘National security’ is of course the sort of vague reason given by governments when they decide to place restrictions. The phrase is never properly defined but is used as a convenient cop out when good reasons cannot be produced.