Corrupt top brass turn their sights on media men
@ Sunday Island / 01AUG2005
By Our Defence Correspondent
While Mervyn Silva’s threatening of virtually the entire journalism industry of Sri Lanka took centrestage this week, a far more insidious and dangerous situation has arisen for mediamen who cover the complex subject of defence in this country.
A group of armed forces top brass has begun a concerted effort to discredit leading defence writers of the English and Sinhala media, in revenge for exposing corrupt arms deals that would have virtually bankrupted the country, which led to the government cancelling these deals, according to several sources in the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
The shameful campaign is being carried by a group of officers who have seen their visions dashed of becoming enormously wealthy at the expense of the Sri Lankan taxpayer through massive commissions off the purchases of some extraordinarily useless items worth billions of rupees. The main focus of such insidious campaigns is to discredit specific defence journalists, who have exposed secretive deals and opened the eyes of government officials.
Most disturbingly, a major part of their efforts are aimed towards brainwashing top political leaders in both the PA and the UNP, and creating a situation where journalists will be pressurized by political means to stop reporting on arms purchases. Targets of this brainwashing campaign include President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, sources said.
One of the main targets of this campaign is the defence columnist of the Sunday Times, Iqbal Athas, who has drawn the ire of several top officers over his recent repeated exposures of the attempt to waste billions of rupees on the old British warship "Sir Galahad", and the purchase of ammunition for the Sri Lanka Navy.
Interestingly, the Defence Columnists of the Island are also known to be among the prime targets of this group of officers, which is making furious attempts to establish the identities of the writers.
Other targets include defence writers of our sister paper Divaina, the Sunday Leader, Lankadeepa, and Irudina, sources said.
Part of this campaign saw fruition last Tuesday, when several top brass cleverly manipulated a function chaired by the President at the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Memorial Convention Centre, guiding the President away from the official topic which was the PTOMS Agreement, and leading her into criticizing defence journalists in the country.
These officers are attempting to portray defence writers as being against the President, anti the armed forces, and against the peace process that the President is attempting to move forward. But this is not the case. The vast majority of journalists, especially defence writers, are extremely supportive of the armed forces efforts during wartime to prosecute the war and protect the country. At the same time, it is one of the basic tenets of journalism that peace is the end result for which all journalists strive.
What political leaders often forget is that it is through the media that they themselves obtain the true picture about many situations regarding the armed forces.
For example, following this column’s expose a few weeks ago on the Rs. 14 billion arms deal with Iran, where a host of utterly useless items were to be purchased, the entire deal has been placed on hold by the government.
Another case in point is the action of President Kumaratunga in cancelling an order for two Russian warships several years ago, after this column repeatedly exposed the fact that both ships were far too old, completely unsuitable for our type of warfare, and would end up costing the government billions, with no benefit to anyone except the LTTE and the top brass who would get rich through illicit commissions from the foreign arms dealer who was trying to sell the ships. Had we not persisted, then the President may well have authorized the purchase, since she only had the advice of the top brass who were pushing for the deal in the first place to line their own pockets.
Another glaring example is the motor accident involving then Air Force Chief Jayalath Weerakkody a few years back, in which another motorist was killed due solely to the negligence of Weerakkody, who was driving his official car with no escorts, and was mysteriously accompanied by a female Air Force officer, when he ran a red light at Horton Place in the dead of night and collided with another vehicle. The SLAF attempted a massive cover-up, sending one of its drivers the next day to the Borella police station to claim that it was he and not Weerakkody who was driving. The SLAF was assisted in this devious attempt by a top Police officer. Had it not been for the vigilance of the media, this scandal would never have been known to the political leaders of the country. But happily, after repeated follow-up action by the media, which refused to be cowed by the SLAF’s attempts to bully it, President Kumaratunga sent Weerakkody packing into a premature retirement.
This is not the first time that such a campaign has been launched by top brass in the armed forces. However, this appears to be one of the most organized and influential groups of top brass to embark on such a mission.
One alarming aspect of this campaign is that it would seriously compromise the safety and security of individual journalists.
What President Kumaratunga may not have realized is that by publicly criticizing defence journalists, she may have unwittingly given the erroneous impression to some in the armed forces that the government may turn a blind eye if journalists are harmed. A similar situation occurred during the time of President R. Premadasa, when that President’s anger at journalists in general led to a high level of physical attacks on journalists, including harassment by armed forces and politicians who regularly sent the CID to grill journalists regarding specific articles they wrote, and even the kidnapping, torture, and murder of some journalists. It was never proved that President Premadasa was personally involved in any such incident, but the perpetrators operated with the knowledge that they would suffer no consequences for persecuting journalists and therefore operated with impunity.
The most notorious persecution of a journalist, the horrendous murder of Richard De Soysa in 1990, was carried out by President R. Premadasa’s own official bodyguards, who were positively identified by Richard’s mother. It was never proved that the President himself knew anything about the matter. Yet, his contemptuous attitude towards the media no doubt contributed to the crime by convincing the perpetrators that they were at little risk of suffering the consequences. In fact, they were not arrested, despite the evidence against them, and they were finally blasted to their own destruction in the LTTE bomb that killed Premadasa.
Another glaring instance was when Iqbal Athas was attacked in his own home by officers of the SLAF, who placed a loaded pistol to his head in the presence of his wife and young daughter. Two SLAF officers were convicted and sentenced to prison terms for this attack. Their motive was to prevent Athas from further exposures regarding corruption in the SLAF, after he made a host of allegations at the then Commander of the SLAF. Although no link was ever proven between the SLAF chief and the conduct of his men, the fact that the SLAF was going hammer and tongs to discredit Athas and the Sunday Times, definitely served to embolden the perpetrators.
Top brass of the armed forces would much prefer if the entire media behaved as a "hurrah brigade" for them. Whenever a victory is achieved on the battlefield, the armed forces fall over themselves in currying favour with the media in order to have glory heaped upon themselves publicly. At such times, the issue of military secrets is always forgotten.
Take for instance, the curious case of the Sri Lanka Navy rushing to praise itself after the destruction of an LTTE arms ship off Mullaittivu shortly after the ceasefire agreement came into effect in 2002. That magnificent victory was splashed in the media to such an extent that even the video tape taken by the camera attached to one of the gunboats, which automatically begins taping when a gun is fired, was surreptitiously released to one journalist. The tape contained graphic details of the sinking of the ship, and the manner in which the Navy’s gunboats attacked and the strategies that were adopted, information that was priceless to the LTTE. Since only one tape exists of the incident, and that tape was immediately sent to Navy Headquarters in the custody of an officer, it would be very easy indeed to find out who leaked the tape. Yet, the Commander of the Navy never launched an investigation as to how the tape went from under his own nose, into the hands of the media! He was quite happy at having such a confidential tape being in the public domain, as long as it was being used to praise the Navy!
Yet now, when these same journalists turn around and expose the wrongdoings of those same officers, by persuading the government not to waste billions on the useless ship Sir Galahad, the media becomes the wrongdoer!
The defence writers of Sinhala, English and Tamil newspapers in this country are among the finest journalists in Sri Lanka, and certainly some of the most experienced as well. For the most part each of them has spent many years, often decades, in the field, and is well acquainted with the intrigue that surrounds Sri Lanka’s armed forces. By exposing corruption and scandals within the armed forces, they do a great service to the country and the government, by exposing corruption and ineptitude.
Not for nothing are journalists called "the Watchdogs of the Nation". Watchdogs who bark when they see wrongdoing. The government and the armed forces would be advised to put their own houses in order, instead of trying to silence the watchdogs in the vain hope that the problems would go away if no one was bringing them to the notice of the public.
How far these corrupt top brass will go in their campaign to persecute journalists, is not clear. But they should be warned: we in the media are aware of what they are doing, and we will pursue them relentlessly should their actions continue in this vein and any harm befalls any of our journalistic fraternity.