A harbour of discontent

An article published in the New York Times generates a sobering frame of accountability and corruption in Sri Lanka today. After publication in print and online, the article generated extremely high readership, sharing and other stories, referencing the original. The role, reach and relevance of the New York Times was buttressed considerably since 2016 by domestic pushback in the US from quarters in Washington DC chagrined by the paper’s unwavering and unflattering scrutiny of policy, pronouncement and politics. The manner in which the story spread in Sri Lanka was revealing, though this brief summary doesn’t do justice to the nuance and variance present in the capture and contestation of the original story, especially over social media.

The immediate and expected response from the Rajapaksa camp was to deny and decry vehemently. This initial enfilade was followed by various pronouncements over social media promising a more robust official response, which however didn’t appear for days. In the meanwhile, the former Central Bank Governor released content in response to the article, which was picked up and distributed by the Rajapaksa camp as evidence of the story’s false premises, and bias. The official response, badly formatted and without spell-checking in English, was perhaps first drafted in Sinhala. Stylistically, the English version was clearly the product of many authors. By the time the Rajapaksa’s produced an official response, the original article had gone viral. At the same time and over social media, an unprecedented cacophony of trolls – accounts with fake photos and names, activated after a long period of being dormant, or freshly created – started to attack in particular the journalist from the New York Times and those she had worked with in Sri Lanka. Personal attacks produced by close associates of the Rajapaksa camp over social media helped these trolls, in two ways. One, by the production of content that tried to name and shame the journalists involved in the story as having hidden agendas, partial to or somehow architected by the UNP. Two, by the support they extended to more vicious commentary of trolls by the act of actively liking their content on Twitter – a process which cannot be automated or accidentally occur. These trolls, in a frenzy of activity, let loose a barrage of verbal abuse against those partial to the merits of the story. Many of the worst comments were explicitly liked by prominent, official, personally curated accounts of the Rajapaksa camp, signifying that they were partial to not just the pushback, but the expression used and the violence engineered. On TV, politicians from the Joint Opposition held up photos of those involved in the story and said that the entire article was rehashing content first published in the Daily News newspaper, some years ago. After the official response from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office, the former President, those close to him and the troll army all noted how they would sue the New York Times. Many, your author included, roundly welcomed this move, as a way in which facts and documents pertinent to the article would be through court proceedings, be made public.

The public and private pressure – not all of which is in the public domain – directed at those who worked on the story was so bad, and happened at such an accelerated pace, the New York Times issued an unprecedented public warning noting that any issue the former President had with the substance of the article should only be taken up with the newspaper, and not by threats of violence or retribution. This warning was echoed by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Foreign Correspondents Association of Sri Lanka, as well as other domestic and international media freedom groups. The shrill threats of suing the newspaper died down. Late last week, Rajapaksa regime acolytes over social media, giving their ‘personal’ opinion, noted that it would be a waste of money and that it was far more useful to go after the conspirators in Sri Lanka who fueled the story. Meanwhile, in response to a complaint lodged by a government MP, the CID was reported to have launched an investigation into the allegations noted in the New York Times article. The only problem here was that the New York Times highlighted in some detail content it claimed was sourced from on-going investigations into the Hambantota Port deal and campaign financing around it. On social media, your author and others flagged the sheer absurdity, truly comedic if not for how tragic a picture it painted of governance in 2018, of the CID investigating an on-going investigation purportedly conducted by the CID itself!

The farce only got worse (or better?) towards the end of the week. The Media Secretary to the former President spun the original article as somehow linked to a statement by John Kerry made in 2016 which had helped the UNP government come to power, and that the New York Times, ideologically partial to or part of Obama-Clinton liberalism, opposed the incumbent US President as well as China, which in turn was why in concert with senior figures in government, who with local collaborators embedded in the mainstream media, conspired to produce the article – all with a view to discrediting Mahinda Rajapaksa!

Your author has lived through and heard a lot of conspiracy theories since 2002. This one though – by sheer force of imagination – was in a different league.

For its part, the UNP – seemingly unaware of any on-going investigation by the CID and dealing with a political nuclear winter after MP Vijayakala’s pro-LTTE statement, distanced itself from allegations in the article that it was forced to hand over the port to the Chinese. In doing so, astute observers noted that the PM was no different to the former President in denying allegations in the article which were politically inconvenient, without any robust material evidence or public debate. Meanwhile, China also unsurprisingly denounced the article as fabrication and fiction. The pro-Rajapaksa troll and tripe army, activated shortly after the article went live, focused their attention more towards those in Sri Lanka, instead of a global media giant that clearly couldn’t be dragged into their snake pit. From at first a frothing Hydra-headed monster, the pushback – online and through more traditional means, morphed into a sharper, more strategic, ominous spear intentionally aimed increasingly at those in Sri Lanka, in tandem with the Rajapaksa camp’s shift in focus to go after – legally or by other means – those they perceived to be behind the article.

It is unlikely the lead author of the New York Times expected any of this. The theatre of the absurd surrounding the publication of the article holds some humbling lessons. Journalists, freelancers and fixers in Sri Lanka tasked with helping international media institutions cover in-depth stories now know the fate that will befall them if and when they cross a line in the sand that raises the ire of those in power or seeking to regain it. It is a chilling effect that will impact quality, probative, investigative journalism. The current government will not deliver on promises to hold the Rajapaksas accountable for corruption. The Rajapaksas have much to hide, going by the raw nerve that was touched and the telling dynamics of the responses to the article. China has much to hide, going by what it has said and importantly, what it has not said. It takes the New York Times to bring to public attention investigations that are so dormant, the CID itself seems to be unaware of them. It takes an international newspaper to focus, however short-lived, public debate on issues our President, our Prime Minister, the government, and domestic media should be leading the scrutiny around.

The New York Times article may have set out to flesh-out Mahinda Rajapaksa’s corruption. What it has inadvertently achieved is to flag the current government’s inability and unwillingness to hold the former President answerable. Clearly, accountability is just a word that features in campaign manifestos.


First published in The Sunday Island, 8 July 2018.


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