Photo courtesy CTBTO
On March 16, 2014, Colombo Telegraph, a UK-based online news outlet published an article entitled ‘Jayantha Dhanapala Is A Liar; Caught Lying Over Silence On Colombo Telegraph Blocking’. This article was a follow-up of an earlier article on the failure of Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, a member of the Board of Directors of Dialog Axiata PLC, one of Sri Lanka’s premier telecommunications service providers, to prevent Colombo Telegraph from being blocked by that company in Sri Lanka. These articles were followed by a third follow-up piece published on 27 March 2014, with photographic evidence that Colombo Telegraph continues to be blocked. The third article described Dialog as being ‘surreptitious’ in blocking access to the online newspaper, unblocking the site before Dhanapala delivered a speech at public forum organised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), and re-blocking it soon after. In the relative aftermath of this outright accusation of Ambassador Dhanapala as a liar, this article attempts at rethinking the issue, in the backdrop of the broader picture of challenges to the free press in Sri Lanka.
Threats to the press: an old story
Colombo Telegraph has been one among many websites to be blocked in Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa regime, the aversion of which to press freedom is no secret to the world. It is also an online media outlet that has rapidly developed a steady readership from across the broad, garnering substantial interest both inside and outside Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksa administration’s ostrich’s attitude to the press has led to an unprecedented deterioration of press freedom in the island. By no means does this imply that threats to the free press are a singular phenomenon that came to being under the Rajapaksas. They have been around for a long time, and can be considered as a constant presence in Sri Lanka’s socio-political fabric. In the early 1990s, for instance, segments of the press critical of the Premadasa presidency found themselves in mortal danger. Although press freedom relatively prevailed during the decade of Kumaratunga rule, one cannot forget the attacks on the Sunday Leader and the questionable circumstances of the assassination of Rohana Kumara, the Editor of the Satana newspaper. The story of threats to the press under the Rajapaksas is indeed a known story that does not require additional reiteration.
The liberal lobby’s reaction: wanting in critical insights
Making a thought-provoking contribution to the Colombo Telegraph debate, a Sri Lankan social scientist describes Ambassador Dhanapala’s position as ‘ethically untenable’. The fact that the retired diplomat, UN Under Secretary-General, candidate for the post of UN Secretary-General, President of Pugwash International, Governing Board member of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and leading figure in the civil society group Friday Forum is also a member of Dialog’s executive board is put into question, highlighting that a commitment to corporate responsibility is not an excuse to adapt a cautious attitude towards Dialog’s blocking of Colombo Telegraph to its Sri Lankan clientele. At first sight, this view does appear to have a level of credence. Adding further weight to this argument, Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) also maintains that Ambassador Dhanapala ought to choose between his commitment to the Friday Forum and its priorities (which notably include the ‘rule of law’) and a corporate position at the helm of Dialog Axiata PLC.
The above argument may indeed hold ground among some in Sri Lanka’s liberal, urban, English-speaking and Westwardly inclined bubble, but is monumentally inconsistent. In fact, it amounts to the CPA or any non-governmental body in Colombo refusing a substantial grant from a distinguished U.S. funder on the basis of U.S authorities’ dubious practices in Iraq or Guantanamo, or rejecting a generous grant from a Swiss funding mechanism as a mark of protest over the recent passage of controversial immigrant-unfriendly legislation in the Swiss Federal Assembly, or, for that matter, the Swiss Federal Party’s strong anti-immigration lobbying. The fundamental problem with the aforementioned liberal urban, well-travelled and educated lobby is that it largely operates in a highly ‘them-versus-us’ paradigm. This involves perceiving the liberal lobby as on the good side and the state, populist politics, and local entities and individuals that do not position themselves within the urban, liberal, English-speaking social level or its values as the bad side, or the illiberal (and contempt-worthy) ‘other’. The latter contempt also extends to anybody who positions himself or herself on the ‘liberal’ end, but also engages with state-related responsibility or, – as the Dhanapala-Dialog case denotes – with the corporate sector. This ‘them-and-us’ paradigm is also loved by some of the so-called ‘Sri Lanka specialists’ in the West, a mixture of human geographers and anthropologists, who utilise their links to the Sri Lankan NGO/think tank lobbies for their benefit.
In some respects, this outlook may indeed carry a certain level of salience. However, it prevents people from taking a much-needed critical posture on national and international politics, as well as the duplicities and dualities of concepts such as the liberal and the illiberal. It is no secret that Western liberal internationalism, in all its manifestations, is couched in an array of essentially ‘illiberal’ agendas. Accountability, the rule of law, press freedom or any other rights issues are omnipresent universal problems, with varying manifestations from one socio-political space to another.
Putting the Dhanapala-Dialog issue in perspective
Browsing through the existing reports on the Dhanapala-Dialog affair, one cannot help observing the gaping lack of a balanced view beyond the liberal lobby’s critique of Ambassador Dhanapala’s corporate engagements. The issue of blocking online media channels, as well as Ambassador Dhanapala’s low-profile responses to Colombo Telegraph (the above-cited articles quote from email communications between Dhanapala and Colombo Telegraph) need to be put in perspective in the backdrop of the broader picture, especially in terms of the overlapping areas of governance, accountability and corporate culture. It is not Dialog or any other telecommunications service provider that has any interest in blocking news websites in Sri Lanka. Such decisions are the exclusive preserve of governments in power, and to be more precise, of the Executive. A mixture of the provisions of the 1978 Constitution on the Executive branch and the Sri Lankan polity’s clientelist and servile inclinations ensure the concentration of tremendous and overarching influence around the Executive. A ban on independent news sources could not take place in the absence of full executive endorsement. In the present-day context, the Executive most importantly includes the defence high command, with its enhanced ties with certain foreign regimes unkind to press freedom, and willingness to solicit the support of IT specialists from such regimes to keep the press and opponents under constant watch. It is the influence of this executive cohort that prompts firms such as Dialog to ban whatever website they are ordered to ban. Unfortunately, adherence to such requests is primordial to the survival of such businesses, and executive wrath is the last thing they would aspire.
Disciplined reaction and corporate responsibility
In this context, Ambassador Dhanapala’s reaction could only be described as ‘normal’, ‘unsurprising’ and ‘pragmatic’. Dhanapala is only a non-executive, independent member of Dialog’s Board of Directors (very much a ‘briefless-barrister’ role) and certainly not the Board’s sole ideologue or moteur-dirigeant. Board members of this nature are called upon to take decisions on the agendas of the seven or eight board meetings held annually and any ensuing resolutions. It goes without saying that such members are also disconnected from the daily operational details of the company. Someone in such a position can only afford to adopt a diplomatic posture, refrain from openly critiquing the firm, and, for the sake of good conscience, deploy any influence they may have in delving into questionable issues such as the press ban internally, and seeking options of addressing such issues diplomatically, all of which Dhanapala has done. One could notice a very low-profile and cautious undertone in his communications with Colombo Telegraph. The fact that Dialog ‘surreptitiously’ unblocked Colombo Telegraph during Dhanapala’s oration at the aforementioned BASL event suggests that some form of leverage had been levelled at Dialog’s direction, encouraging the company to make an exception. This may not be a measure worthy of any special commendation. However, it is suggestive of the fact that Ambassador Dhanapala has not remained inactive on Dialog’s banning of the free press. All that is doable for someone in his situation is that of exerting mild pressure from the inside, within a very narrow remit of action, and calling upon the company to explore options of at least partially lifting the ban. This, to go by realpolitik, is unlikely to yield positive results, but is the best available alternative. Dhanapala’s critics also condemn his ‘silence’ in the public domain on this issue. Anyone with the slightest acquaintance of Sri Lankan Company Law could confirm that it expressly forbids the public divulging of information gathered as a board member of a company, except in a court of law under oath. If the cue is to be taken from Ambassador Dhanapala’s exemplary diplomatic career, one has to be soft in the head to expect Dhanapala to publicise his communications with Dialog on the issue of banning Colombo Telegraph.
Commitment to best practice, corporate responsibility and the rule of law: not incompatible
The argument that Ambassador Dhanapala, who also stands as a strong advocate of accountability and good governance, should have distanced himself from Dialog looms the debate. Such a decision is indeed an individual one, but how could a decision of this nature be conceptualised in the context of corporate culture? When someone is attached to a leading business firm at its highest levels, one is indeed bound by rights, obligations as well as commitments. If one singular feature characterises Ambassador Dhanapala’s distinguished career in government and beyond, it is a commitment to his duties and obligations. This, by no means implies (as a good few out there seem to concur) a sense of dishonesty, double-standards or a form of cowardice. It is the most diplomatic and disciplined of approaches at one’s disposition, and pursuing it requires an extremely high level of self-control, restraint and self-discipline.
A question worth raising is that of what Colombo Telegraph or any other news outlet could achieve by blatantly castigating a senior citizen (and one of the handful of Sri Lankan diplomats with a substantive international standing) as a ‘liar’. This appellation only amounts to a very puerile understanding of the state of press freedom in the Sri Lankan context. It is reminiscent of the UK’s Daily Mail or Sun-like press-blurbs, and more importantly perhaps, a bleak perception of corporate responsibility. Calling Dhanapala names does not affect in any way the overarching forces that have imposed bans upon news channels such as Colombo Telegraph.
The Friday Forum, largely spearheaded by Ambassador Dhanapala, has been deplorably ineffective in influencing public opinion or government policy. This certainly does not come as a surprise, as the rulers’ strategy is that of obliterating the voice of reason. The likes of the Friday Forum lack the media resources and organisational strength to reach out to the masses. It remains a group of senior citizens (all of them professionals in their respective fields) who call for constructive policy changes. Beyond that narrow remit, there is little a forum of that nature in its present form could perform.
The contemptuous name-calling that targets Ambassador Dhanapala is considerably influenced by his role within the Friday Forum, which enables critics to see a paradox between Dhanapala’s reaction to Dialog’s ban and his advocacy of good governance. This in itself is an erroneous and convoluted assumption. Adherence to a loose-knit group such as the Friday Forum does not deter one from corporate engagements, and when the need be, from adapting an attitude that corresponds to such engagements. Resignations, press-savvy quick decisions and mediatised outbursts of a controversial nature are never the traits of a fine diplomat, which Ambassador Dhanapala has been and continues to be, to the letter.
Swedish Foreign Ministry and Dhanapala: wrong focus
Colombo Telegraph has also cited an article published in a Swedish website that focuses on South Asia that the Swedish Foreign Affairs Ministry is following the matter closely. As an advocate of Nordic norm-entrepreneurship (the substantive critiques of which is a different matter) and press freedom, the Ministry’s and SIPRI’s attention ought to be on the forces that infringe press freedom within Sri Lanka’s ruling regime, and not on a retired diplomat. Dhanapala’s role in a private firm is being mediatised as a near-criminal act, whereas neither Dhanapala nor the company in question are to be blamed for the ban on Colombo Telegraph or any other news channel in Sri Lanka. This is the most farcical aspect of the accusation levelled against Ambassador Dhanapala.
Bans on the free media will exist in Sri Lanka for as long as the prevalent political culture reigns. It is by a more nuanced and painstaking effort at awareness raising, developing pressure groups and supporting existing free media outlets that a difference could be foreseen in the long run.
Name-calling, in the meantime, could only help tarnish the very name-callers.
Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana completed his PhD in Comparative Politics at the School of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, where he presently holds a Postdoctoral Fellowship. In early 2013, he held a Marie Curie early career Fellowship, hosted at the Centre for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University. A past pupil of Trinity College, Kandy, and an alumnus of Université François Rabelais in Tours (France), Dr Weerawardhana has interned at the United Nations and taught at several French universities including Université Paris 13 and Lille 1.