Headache season   

For a government limping from one crisis to another, the prospect of even a brief respite seems distant, given the frequency with which the issues keep piling up. In just the past week, it has had to deal with an unmitigated maritime disaster, natural disasters that left 21 dead, a vaccination campaign struggling to cope with demand with over half a million people still waiting on a second jab, a looming agriculture crisis owing to the overnight ban on chemical fertiliser that could potentially lead to a food shortage, an irritating bipartisan resolution in the US House of Representatives, and to it top off, an EU resolution that puts the crucial GSP+ benefit in the balance.   

The facility which provides concessionary tariffs for over 7,000 export products to the EU was withdrawn in 2012 citing human rights violations and Sri Lanka regained access in 2017 on the strength of assurances that it would replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and fully implement 27 international conventions to which it is a signatory.   

The EU is Sri Lanka’s second biggest export market, accounting for 2.3 billion euros, the first being the US accounting for 25% market share, meaning that exports to the top two markets which the country is critically dependent on at the moment could be in jeopardy if urgent counter measures are not taken to stave off what could turn out to be yet another monumental crisis which the fragile economy simply cannot afford to face.   

The timing of the EU bombshell could not have come at a worse time, even before the curtain could be drawn on the high-profile Sri Lanka Investment Forum which desperately sought to turn the spotlight back on Sri Lanka after global rating downgrades and mounting foreign debt vulnerabilities had collectively taken the sheen off the country’s investment appeal. Even though minister after minister waxed eloquent on a development blueprint designed to put Sri Lanka on the global map with an eye on Western investment funds, all that will now count for naught in light of the looming foreign relations crisis. With an economy already reeling from the prolonged effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, any compromise of the $ 12 billion export revenue basket will likely lead to economic palpitations with far reaching consequences.   

Even though both resolutions are based on similar concerns pertaining to what has been described as the “steadily deteriorating human rights situation” by the EU, the US resolution seems symbolic in nature at least at this point. But not so with the tough EU resolution, which has “we mean business” written all over it.    

Having been pulled into Beijing’s gravitational orbit, the Government has paid scant regard to Western opinion in recent times and now, the slighted West seems to be demanding its pound of flesh. The Government has one of two options, either to tell the West where it can get off or move fast to stave off implementation of the resolution by providing some assurance on fulfilling the EU’s list of requirements.   

Historically, diplomacy and engagement with the West has not been a strong point of the current Government and the fact that little or no effort has gone in to mending ties even while warming up to Beijing has put the Foreign Ministry in an awkward situation.   

Given the high stakes, one can only empathise with the Foreign Ministry. The Government will have to learn that even though rhetoric can help win elections, it is the substance that matters on the international front. Ironically, the former Government did exactly the opposite and paid the price politically.  

The voting pattern of the EU Parliament makes it Hobson’s choice for the Government to fall in line if it so chooses to engage with the EU and thrash things out in the open. It is not going to be a walk in the park judging by the contents of the resolution which among other matters calls for the repeal or replacement of the contentious PTA with one that is in keeping with international best practice. It also makes specific mention of the incarceration of former CID Director Shani Abeysekera, and civil society activists, Hejaaz Hizbullah and Ahnaf Jazeem, calling on the Government to ensure due legal process failing which to unconditionally release them.   

The resolution also acknowledges and adds to the UN Human Rights Council Resolution of 23 March 2021, a review of which is coming up in September. The adoption of the 20th Amendment, failure to put in place domestic initiatives for accountability and reconciliation, increasing militarisation of civilian functions of the Government, rising number of custodial deaths, political obstruction of accountability mechanisms, intimidation of civil society, decline in judicial independence, reduction of parliamentary control as a result of the 20th Amendment, and a rigorous and impartial investigation of the Easter Sunday attack are some of the other concerns raised in the resolution.   

The resolution also “notes with concern, the recent proposal to enact a new law on disinformation”, stating that it could pose a threat to freedom of expression. It goes without saying that none of the above which pertains to the sovereignty of a nation should be the concern of a trading bloc. Yet, that it has come to a point where such a bloc is more concerned about ensuring the rights and sovereignty of the people, points to the failure of successive governments that have been more interested in their political survival than the welfare of the people they claim to represent. In this day and age where “might is right” is the operational doctrine, countries that are at the mercy of others for economic survival have little option other than to toe the line.   

It is in this light that the Government, in its quest to control the narrative, should be wary of playing into the hands of the “mighty” by invoking unnecessary control of social media platforms. Appointing the Police as the arbiters of real and fake news could set a dangerous precedent that could render the already existent libel and defamation laws redundant. In fact, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka expressed concern over the media release issued by the Police titled “Circulation of fake news, photographs, videos causing disunity, hate, and obstructing the Covid-19 programme (sic)”.   

The irony of this is that just a few days ago, when a journalist attempted to clarify some matters from the so-called Health Promotion Bureau Spokesperson Dr. Hemantha Herath, he had gone ballistic and accused the journalist of being “third class” for raising uncomfortable questions. Not stopping at that, the Spokesperson had shouted that it was the “third class journalists who were killed in the past”.   

Herath issued an unconditional apology the very next day. But by then, the damage had already been done, with the media community forced to reflect on a dark era. The question is this: When the people who are supposed to answer questions don’t do what they are supposed to do, what is the alternative? It is these officials that pave the way for fake news by fuelling the rumour mill.   

While freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution, the BASL is of the view that “criticism of the government, and of political parties and policies is per se, a permissible exercise of the freedom of speech and expression under Article 14 (1) (a)”. Be that as it may, this latest policing initiative is likely to put Sri Lanka further under the global microscope. The men in khaki would serve the nation better by focusing their newly acquired tech skills on investigating online fraud, product scams, cybercriminal activity such as child abuse, identity theft, blackmail, etc.   

Censorship, in whatever form it manifests, is a double-edged sword. No government in this country has added to its longevity by resorting to it. Many are the examples; the most recent being 2015. All things considered, it is best that the authorities tread lightly on territory that even angels would fear to tread.